Sep 19, 2023

Groundbreaking research at UofL helps paralyzed man stand again

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An experimental treatment at the University of Louisville is helping a man stand again, 14 years after he suffered a devastating injury.

Keith Smith was getting ready to become a firefighter in California when a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed.

"I was 23. I just got my EMT license. I was ready to take on the world with three kids, little kids. And my whole life came crashing down on me," Smith told WLKY.

He woke up from a coma days later, unable to feel anything from the chest-down due to a chronic spinal cord injury.

Desperate to get his life back, Smith said he applied to participate in a medical research study conducted at UofL. Ten years after his accident, he traveled all the way from California to Louisville, where an epidural stimulation device was implanted into his lower spine.

"When a person has a spinal cord injury, as traumatic as that is, and thousands of neurons die, there are millions of neurons below the injury that are still functional and active. They're just, what I would say, confused," said Dr. Susan Harkema, who is leading the university's groundbreaking research. "So what we do is we focus on taking that complex circuitry, which is really just as complex as your brain, and use a stimulator to help it work more like it did before the injury."

Harkema said when paired with activity-based therapy, the device activates the nerve circuits in the spinal cord needed to help participants stand. While it isn't a cure, it helps regulate blood pressure to improve patients' quality of life.

"Now that I got this stimulator, I'm able to go with my family, go shopping, go out to eat," Smith said.

The device is approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for research, but could eventually be used to treat spinal injury patients like Smith around the world.

"What an opportunity to be able to come and participate in spinal cord injury research to help the thousands, if not millions, of people around the globe that live with this devastating injury," Smith said.

When the research began at UofL years ago, it was one of the only places testing epidural stimulation of the spinal cord. It has since expanded to other places in the U.S. and other countries.