Advances Bring First True Hope to Spinal Cord Injury Patients
Seven years ago, mountain biking near his home in Whitefish, Montana, Jeff Marquis felt confident enough to try for a jump he usually avoided. But he hesitated just a bit as he was going over. Instead of catching air, Marquis crashed.
Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury.
After 18 days on a ventilator in intensive care and two-and-a-half months in a rehabilitation hospital, Marquis was able to move his arms and wrists, but not his fingers or anything below his chest. Still, he was determined to remain as independent as possible. "I wasn't real interested in having people take care of me," says Marquis, now 35. So, he dedicated the energy he formerly spent biking, kayaking, and snowboarding toward recovering his own mobility.
For generations, those like Marquis with severe spinal cord injuries dreamt of standing and walking again – with no realistic hope of achieving these dreams. But now, a handful of people with such injuries, including Marquis, have stood on their own and begun to learn to take steps again. "I'm always trying to improve the situation but I'm happy with where I'm at," Marquis says.
The recovery Marquis and a few of his fellow patients have achieved proves that our decades-old understanding of the spinal cord was wrong. Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury. Only a few thousand nerve cells actually die when the spinal cord is injured. The other neurons still have the ability to generate signals and movement on their own, says Susan Harkema, co-principal investigator at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, where Marquis is being treated.
"The spinal cord has much more responsibility for executing movement than we thought before," Harkema says. "Successful movement can happen without those connections from the brain." Nerve cell circuits remaining after the injury can control movement, she says, but leaving people sitting in a wheelchair doesn't activate those sensory circuits. "When you sit down, you lose all the sensory information. The whole circuitry starts discombobulating."
Harkema and others use a two-pronged approach – both physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation – to get those spinal cord circuits back into a functioning state. Several research groups are still honing this approach, but a few patients have already taken steps under their own power, and others, like Marquis, can now stand unassisted – both of which were merely fantasies for spinal cord injury patients just five years ago.
"This really does represent a leap forward in terms of how we think about the capacity of the spinal cord to be repaired after injury," says Susan Howley, executive vice president for research for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which supports research for spinal cord injuries.
Jeff Marquis biking on a rock before his accident.
This new biological understanding suggests the need for a wholesale change in how people are treated after a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But today, most insurance companies cover just 30-40 outpatient rehabilitation sessions per year, whether you've sprained your ankle or severed your spinal cord. To deliver the kind of therapy that really makes a difference for spinal cord injury patients requires "60-80-90 or 150 sessions," she says, adding that she thinks insurance companies will more than make up for the cost of those therapy sessions if spinal cord injury patients are healthier. Early evidence suggests that getting people back on their feet helps prevent medical problems common among paralyzed people, including urinary tract infections, which can require costly hospital stays.
"Exercise and the ability to fully bear one's own weight are as crucial for people who live with paralysis as they are for able-bodied people," Howley notes, adding that the Reeve Foundation is now trying to expand the network of facilities available in local communities to offer this essential rehabilitation.
"Providing the right kind of training every day to people could really improve their opportunity to recover," Harkema says.
It's not entirely clear yet how far someone could progress with rehabilitation alone, Harkema says, but probably the best results for someone with a severe injury will also require so-called epidural electrical stimulation. This device, implanted in the lower back for a cost of about $30,000, sends an electrical current at varying frequencies and intensities to the spinal cord. Several separate teams of researchers have now shown that epidural stimulation can help restore sensation and movement to people who have been paralyzed for years.
Epidural stimulation boosts the electrical signal that is generated below the point of injury, says Daniel Lu, an associate professor and vice chair of neurosurgery at the UCLA School of Medicine. Before a spinal cord injury, he says, a neuron might send a message at a volume of 10 but after injury, that volume might drop to a two or three. The epidural stimulation potentially trains the neuron to respond to the lower volume, Lu says.
Lu has used such stimulators to improve hand function – "essentially what defines us" – in two patients with spinal cord injuries. Both increased their grip strength so they now can lift a cup to drink by themselves, which they couldn't do before. He's also used non-invasive stimulation to help restore bladder function, which he says many spinal cord injury patients care about as much as walking again.
A closeup of the stimulator.
Not everyone will benefit from these treatments. People whose injury was caused by a cut to the spinal cord, as with a knife or bullet, probably can't be helped, Lu says, adding that they account for less than 5 percent of spinal cord injuries.
The current challenge Lu says is not how to stimulate the spinal cord, but where to stimulate it and the frequency of stimulation that will be most effective for each patient. Right now, doctors use an off-the-shelf stimulator that is used to treat pain and is not optimized for spinal cord patients, Harkema says.
Swiss researchers have shown impressive results from intermittent rather than continuous epidural stimulation. These pulses better reflect the way the brain sends its messages, according to Gregoire Courtine, the senior author on a pair of papers published Nov. 1 in Nature and Nature Neuroscience. He showed that he could get people up and moving within just a few days of turning on the stimulation. Three of his patients are walking again with only a walker or minimal assistance, and they also gained voluntary leg movements even when the stimulator was off. Continuous stimulation, this research shows, actually interferes with the patients' perception of limb position, and thus makes it harder for them to relearn to walk.
Even short of walking, proper physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation can transform the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury, Howley and Harkema say. Patients don't need to be able to reach the top shelf or run a marathon to feel like they've been "cured" from their paralysis. Instead, recovering bowel, bladder and sexual functions, the ability to regulate their temperature and blood pressure, and reducing the breakdown of skin that can lead to a life-threatening infection can all be transformative – and all appear to improve with the combination of rehabilitation and electrical stimulation.
Howley cites a video of one of Harkema's patients, Stefanie Putnam, who was passing out five to six times a day because her blood pressure was so low. She couldn't be left alone, which meant she had no independence. After several months of rehabilitation and stimulation, she can now sit up for long periods, be left alone, and even, she says gleefully, cook her own dinner. "Every time I watch it, it brings me to tears," Howley says of the video. "She's able to resume her normal life activity. It's mind-boggling."
The work also suggests a transformation in the care of people immediately after injury. They should be allowed to stand and start taking steps as soon as possible, even if they cannot do it under their own power, Harkema says. Research is also likely to show that quickly implanting a stimulator after an injury will make a difference, she says.
There may be medications that can help immediately after an injury, too. One drug currently being studied, called riluzole, has already been approved for ALS and might help limit the damage of a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But testing its effectiveness has been a slow process, she says, because it needs to be given within 12 hours of the initial injury and not enough people get to the testing sites in time.
Stem cell therapy also offers promise for spinal cord injury patients, Howley says – but not the treatments currently provided by commercial stem cell clinics both in the U.S. and overseas, which she says are a sham. Instead, she is carefully following research by a California-based company called Asterias Biotherapeutics, which announced plans Nov. 8 to merge with a company called BioTime.
Asterias and a predecessor company have been treating people since 2010 in an effort to regrow nerves in the spinal cord. All those treated have safely tolerated the cells, but not everyone has seen a huge improvement, says Edward Wirth, who has led the trial work and is Asterias' chief medical director. He says he thinks he knows what's held back those who didn't improve much, and hopes to address those issues in the next 3- to 4-year-long trial, which he's now discussing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
So far, he says, some patients have had an almost complete return of movement in their hands and arms, but little improvement in their legs. The stem cells seem to stimulate tissue repair and regeneration, he says, but only around the level of the injury in the spinal cord and a bit below. The legs, he says, are too far away to benefit.
Wirth says he thinks a combination of treatments – stem cells, electrical stimulation, rehabilitation, and improved care immediately after an injury – will likely produce the best results.
While there's still a long way to go to scale these advances to help the majority of the 300,000 spinal cord injury patients in the U.S., they now have something that's long been elusive: hope.
"Two or three decades ago there was no hope at all," Howley says. "We've come a long way."
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
The rise of remote work is a win-win for people with disabilities and employers
Disability advocates see remote work as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike.
Any corporate leader would jump at the opportunity to increase their talent pool of potential employees by 15 percent, with all these new hires belonging to an underrepresented minority. That’s especially true given tight labor markets and CEO desires to increase headcount. Yet, too few leaders realize that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in this country, numbering 50 million.
Some executives may dread the extra investments in accommodating people’s disabilities. Yet, providing full-time remote work could suffice, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group think tank. The authors found that the employment rate for people with disabilities did not simply reach the pre-pandemic level by mid-2022, but far surpassed it, to the highest rate in over a decade. “Remote work and a strong labor market are helping [individuals with disabilities] find work,” said Adam Ozemik, who led the research and is chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group.
Disability advocates see this development as a silver lining of the pandemic, a win-win for adults with disabilities and the business world alike. For decades before the pandemic, employers had refused requests from workers with disabilities to work remotely, according to Thomas Foley, executive director of the National Disability Institute. During the pandemic, "we all realized that...many of us could work remotely,” Foley says. “[T]hat was disproportionately positive for people with disabilities."
Charles-Edouard Catherine, director of corporate and government relations for the National Organization on Disability, said that remote-work options had been advocated for many years to accommodate disabilities. “It’s a little frustrating that for decades corporate America was saying it’s too complicated, we’ll lose productivity, and now suddenly it’s like, sure, let’s do it.”
The pandemic opened doors for people with disabilities
Early in the pandemic, employment rates dropped for everyone, including people with disabilities, according to Ozemik’s research. However, these rates recovered quickly. In the second quarter of 2022, people with disabilities aged 25 to 54, the prime working age, are 3.5 percent more likely to be employed, compared to before the pandemic.
What about people without disabilites? They are still 1.1 percent less likely to be employed.
These numbers suggest that remote work has enabled a substantial number of people with disabilities to find and retain employment.
“We have a last-in, first-out labor market, and [people with disabilities] are often among the last in and the first out,” Olzemik says. However, this dynamic has changed, with adults with disabilities seeing employment rates recover much faster. Now, the question is whether the new trend will endure, Olzemik adds. “And my conclusion is that not only is it a permanent thing, but it’s going to improve.”
Gene Boes, president and chief executive of the Northwest Center, a Seattle organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent, confirms this finding. “The new world we live in has opened the door a little bit more…because there’s just more demand for labor.”
Long COVID disabilities put a premium on remote work
Remote work can help mitigate the impact of long COVID. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 19 percent of those who had COVID developed long COVID. Recent Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million working age Americans suffer from it, with economic costs estimated at $3.7 trillion.
Certainly, many of these so-called long-haulers experience relatively mild symptoms - such as loss of smell - which, while troublesome, are not disabling. But other symptoms are serious enough to be disabilities.
According to a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, about a quarter of those with long COVID changed their employment status or working hours. That means long COVID was serious enough to interfere with work for 4 million people. For many, the issue was serious enough to qualify them as disabled.
Indeed, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found in a just-released study that the number of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. grew by 1.7 million. That growth stemmed mainly from long COVID conditions such as fatigue and brain fog, meaning difficulties with concentration or memory, with 1.3 million people reporting an increase in brain fog since mid-2020.
Many had to drop out of the labor force due to long COVID. Yet, about 900,000 people who are newly disabled have managed to continue working. Without remote work, they might have lost these jobs.
For example, a software engineer at one of my client companies has struggled with brain fog related to long COVID. With remote work, this employee can work during the hours when she feels most mentally alert and focused, even if that means short bursts of productivity throughout the day. With flexible scheduling, she can take rests, meditate, or engage in activities that help her regain focus and energy. Without the need to commute to the office, she can save energy and time and reduce stress, which is crucial when dealing with brain fog.
In fact, the author of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York study notes that long COVID can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disability Act, depending on the specifics of the condition. That means the law can require private employers with fifteen or more staff, as well as government agencies, to make reasonable accommodations for those with long COVID. Richard Deitz, the author of this study, writes in the paper that “telework and flexible scheduling are two accommodations that can be particularly beneficial for workers dealing with fatigue and brain fog.”
The current drive to return to the office, led by many C-suite executives, may need to be reconsidered in light of legal and HR considerations. Arlene S. Kanter, director of the disability law and policy program at the Syracuse University College of Law, said that the question should depend on whether people with disabilities can perform their work well at home, as they did during Covid outbreaks. “[T]hen people with disabilities, as a matter of accommodation, shouldn’t be denied that right,” Kanter said.
But companies shouldn’t need to worry about legal regulations. It simply makes dollars and sense to expand their talent pool by 15% of an underrepresented minority. After all, extensive research shows that improving diversity boosts both decision-making and financial performance.
Companies that are offering more flexible work options have already gained significant benefits in terms of diverse hires. In its efforts to adapt to the post-pandemic environment, Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, decided to offer permanent fully remote work options to its entire workforce. And according to Meta chief diversity officer Maxine Williams, the candidates who accepted job offers for remote positions were “substantially more likely” to come from diverse communities: people with disabilities, Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, Native American, veterans, and women. The numbers bear out these claims: people with disabilities increased from 4.7 to 6.2 percent of Meta’s employees.
Having consulted for 21 companies to help them transition to hybrid work arrangements, I can confirm that Meta’s numbers aren’t a fluke. The more my clients proved willing to offer remote work, the more staff with disabilities they recruited - and retained. That includes employees with mobility challenges. But it also includes employees with less visible disabilities, such as people with long COVID and immunocompromised people who feel reluctant to put themselves at risk of getting COVID by coming into the office.
Unfortunately, many leaders fail to see the benefits of remote work for underrepresented groups, such as those with disabilities. Some even say the opposite is true, with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon claiming that returning to the office will aid diversity.
What explains this poor executive decision making? Part of the answer comes from a mental blindspot called the in-group bias. Our minds tend to favor and pay attention to the concerns of those in the group of people who seem to look and think like us. Dimon and other executives without disabilities don’t perceive people with disabilities to be part of their in-group. They thus are blind to the concerns of those with disabilities, which leads to misperceptions such as Dimon’s that returning to the office will aid diversity.
In-group bias is one of many dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. They impact decision making in all life areas, ranging from the future of work to relationships.
Another relevant cognitive bias is the empathy gap. This term refers to our difficulty empathizing with those outside of our in-group. The lack of empathy combines with the blindness from the in-group bias, causing executives to ignore the feelings of employees with disabilities and prospective hires.
Omission bias also plays a role. This dangerous judgment error causes us to perceive failure to act as less problematic than acting. Consequently, executives perceive a failure to support the needs of those with disabilities as a minor matter.
The failure to empower people with disabilities through remote work options will prove costly to the bottom lines of companies. Not only are limiting their talent pool by 15 percent, they’re harming their ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates. And as their lawyers and HR departments will tell them, by violating the ADA, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy.
By contrast, companies like Meta - and my clients - that offer remote work opportunities are seizing a competitive advantage by recruiting these underrepresented candidates. They’re lowering costs of labor while increasing diversity. The future belongs to the savvy companies that offer the flexibility that people with disabilities need.