There are tiny rat treadmills in the lab. And jars of Nutella, also for the rats. There are video cameras, heaps of electrodes, and instruments for slicing frozen brain tissue.
And in the center of it all: Reggie Edgerton, a 75-year-old physiologist who has spent four decades on a stubborn quest to prove, in the face of scientific ridicule, that severed spinal cords can be jolted back to life — and that paralyzed patients need not be paralyzed forever.
Now, he’s got the data to prove it.
“Spinal cord injury may no longer mean a lifelong sentence of paralysis,” said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which is funding some of Edgerton’s research.
Using currents of electricity to jump-start injured spinal cords, Edgerton and his colleagues have given nearly a dozen paralyzed men, including a college baseball star and a polar explorer, the ability to move their own limbs. The men have been able to once again control their bladders and bowels, function sexually, stand upright — and with assistance, take steps.
The history of paralysis research is littered with overhyped promises and false hopes. But many physicians and patient advocates say Edgerton’s work is one of the first approaches that may actually help large numbers of patients in the near future, particularly those with fairly recent injuries.