ECU alumnus steps forward in paralysis research

Reggie Edgerton

By Kathy Muse

When Reggie Edgerton ’61 took health, exercise physiology, and biology classes at East Carolina University while working at the campus infirmary, he had no idea that the foundation for a remarkable research career was being established.  He did not know this research would become a life-changing discovery for a man paralyzed from a spinal cord injury and could provide hope to millions of others.

Edgerton recently lead the clinical trial that used epidural stimulation of the spinal cord to help Rob Summers, who was completely paralyzed from the chest down, regain voluntary, conscious control of movement and other autonomic functions such as improved bladder and temperature control.

For more than three years following a motor vehicle accident, Summers was unable to stand, step, or exert any voluntary control of muscles within his legs.

Doctors told him he would never walk again.

Then he became the first human to participate in specific research involving epidural stimulation.

Epidural stimulation works through a 16-electrode array along with a small stimulating device and battery, which was surgically implanted in Summers’ dura, the thick membrane surrounding the lumbar spinal cord.

The device permits long-term electrical stimulation and activates the spinal nerves just enough to make them responsive to sensory signals coming from the lower extremities of Summers.

Edgerton said, “The stimulation is at a threshold intensity which does not actually induce a movement but enables the spinal cord to receive and interpret the sensory information which tells the spinal cord to stand once pressure is placed on the bottom of the feet.”

After weeks of stimulation and locomotor training, Summers was able to stand independently for up to four minutes at a time and he could perform this repeatedly after brief periods of rest.  He could also take steps with assistance.  Finally, after six to seven months, he was able to voluntarily move his legs on command but only during epidural stimulation.

“The results from the first subject that we have implanted using the stimulation strategies developed have significantly exceeded our expectations,” said Edgerton.  “These results have revealed a new and important conceptual discovery that could have a large impact on a wide range of neuromotor disorders.”

Future research plans include repeating the procedure in four more subjects using the present technology and to develop a more advanced device that will take full advantage of the capability of the spinal circuitry to control movement in the presents of stimulation.

Edgerton received his bachelor of science in health and physical education from ECU in 1961; in 1963 his master’s degree from the University of Iowa; and in 1968 his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Michigan State University.  He is a native of Pamlico County near Oriental, N.C. and serves as professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.