The Big Idea

Those of you who follow news about spinal cord injury research have probably read about “The Big Idea”, a research initiative of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Several years ago four gentlemen with chronic spinal cord injuries took part in a study led Dr. Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville and Dr. Reggie Edgerton of UCLA and were implanted with an epidural stimulator and underwent vigorous locomotor training. The stimulators were implanted in the low back region of the participants to provide electrical stimulation to the collection of nerves in the lumbar and sacral regions of the spinal cord that innervate muscles of the lower extremities. When stimulators are turned on, nerves become active and allow muscles of the legs to contract.

All four men not only showed improvements in the ability to voluntarily move their legs, they also demonstrated unexpected improvements in functions that are controlled by our autonomic nervous system. They showed improvements in temperature regulation, bowel and bladder control, sexual function, and cardiovascular function. These results indicate that there may still be existing connections between the brain and spinal cord following complete spinal cord injuries and that the use of epidural stimulation, when combined with specific, goal directed rehabilitation, can lead to improvements in function following a spinal cord injury.

This study proved that recovery in function can occur following spinal cord injuries if the proper intervention, in this case epidural stimulation, is utilized. In order to evaluate the effectiveness of this treatment more thoroughly, the Reeve Foundation is beginning a five year study that will include 36 participants. The participants will receive the epidural stimulator and extensive rehabilitation with the goals of improving voluntary movement and autonomic function. A purpose of this study is to prove that epidural stimulation is a safe, effective way of improving function following damage to the nervous system.

The millions of people in this county living with paralysis, along with their loves ones and caregivers, may be the ultimate beneficiaries of this study.

Thanks to the generous supporters of the TRF, we are proud to pledge a $425,000 grant to the “The Big Idea” that will cover the expenses of one of the research participants throughout the 5 year study. We are excited to follow the progress of the initiative and will provide updates when they are available.

For more information about this initiative please visit