Summers had hoped of being a major league pitcher since he was a little boy, but a 2006 hit-and-run accident, leaving Summers paralyzed from the neck down, shattered that dream. Standing, let alone playing baseball, was no longer possible for Summers after the accident. A novel spinal implant device, however, may help Summers, and thousands like him who’ve lost muscle function below the waist, walk again.
An electrode array, created by Dr. Reggie Edgerton and his 11-member team, was inserted over Summer’s lumbosacral spine, which allowed the scientists to send electrical pulses directly through Summer’s spinal cord. These pulses of electricity amplify the motor commands to the paralyzed area, enabling the team to activate circuits of the spinal cords capable of producing movement in the area. The team is hoping that the bursts of training, as well as strenuous training, can help awaken neural circuits capable of making those areas move again.
Summers hasn’t regained the full ability to walk. But because of the surgically implanted device (and his determination and effort), Summers has been able to stand up on his own again. Not only can he bear his own weight, but he can move his toes, ankles, and hips on command- quite a miracle for someone that was paralyzed from the neck down. And although this isn’t a cure for paralysis, the 16 electrodes implanted in his spine have even enabled Summers to take a few steps. He said, "The third day they turned it on, I stood independently after not moving anything in four years." And though he hasn’t been able to return to the mound as a professional pitcher, the device has allowed him to start working as a coach at a Florida baseball camp, since it has resumed certain bodily functions such as sweating that is necessary function to help people handle heat.
This device is certainly groundbreaking, but who is the ingenious mind that created it? Dr. Reggie Edgerton, distinguished UCLA professor, is the leading researcher in the field of neuromuscular plasticity. He has been studying neural networks in the lumbar spinal cord of humans and other mammals, a subject that has always fascinated him, since 1968. Dedicated to finding an answer to how humans can regain control of standing and other function after paralysis and enthused by this domain, Edgerton was intrinsically motivated to find out if a mechanism for recovery was possible.
Like Watson and Crick, Edgerton is a great collector. Watson and Crick were able to collect and then piece together data and findings from a variety of other scientists, like Rosalind Franklin, to come up with the structure of DNA. Edgerton took 30 years of paralysis research, his own and that of others, and used it to create what has now been dubbed a "medical breakthrough" by many in the medical field. Given the extensive amount of research and the previous failed efforts by scientists and doctors to help paralyzed patients regain some function in the injured body part, many were doubtful that an effective clinical treatment for those with paralysis was possible. Even Edgerton said when he first saw Summers standing, "None of us believed it. I was afraid to believe it."
Edgerton, though the head innovator, cited the importance of collaboration in developing these implants. Uzzi and Spiro in their article "Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem" said that "creativity is spurred when diverse ideas are united or when creative material in one domain inspires fresh thinking in another." This kind of collaboration can be seen in the creation of this product. Edgerton, a neuroscientist, not only teamed with other neuroscientists, but with a mechanical engineer, someone from an entirely different domain. With Edgerton's biological knowledge and Joel Burdick's engineering knowledge, the team was able to create the electrodes that are currently in Summer's spinal cord. The team of 11 individuals clearly illustrate a small world network in which this scientific collaboration took place. The group of 11 was able to bounce ideas off of one another, allowing novel ideas in different domains to be utilized by the neuroscientists. However, the collaboration is not too intense, where the collaboration only leads to old or common material being shared.
The device has won many awards and titles this past year, from those inside the field of medicine and from outside, even winning Popular Mechanic's 2011 Breakthrough Award for its ingenuity and its utility. Scientists, including Edgerton and his team, though optimistic about the prospects of this device, are still a little cautious given that Summers is the only human subject to date to be tested with the electrodes. One Scientist, professor Geoffrey Raisman from the Institute of Neurology at UCL, said: "This one case is interesting, and from one of the leading groups in the world. To what extent this procedure could in the future provide a further and sustained improvement cannot be judged on the basis of one patient." However, most in the medical field that have come upon this study acknowledge that though the cure for paralysis is still not out there, this is the closest the world has seen thus far to an effective treatment.