Paralysed people can regain control of their bladder thanks to breakthrough magnetic device, a study has shown.
Following a spinal injury many people are forced to use a catheter which they describe as degrading and worse than not being able to walk.
But neuroscientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) were able to restore the patient’s ability to urinate without one with an experimental magnetic treatment.
Mild stimulation of the brain restored the bladder’s function allowing patients to pee naturally for up to two weeks between treatments on their lower spine.
The breakthrough gives hope for paralysed people to live more independently and without health risks linked to regular catheter use.
Most people left paralysed from spinal-cord injuries must slide a catheter, or narrow tube, into the bladder several times a day to drain urine.
And quadriplegics can only do this with the help of a carer.
But relying on a catheter long-term can introduce bacteria that leads to urinary tract infections and permanent scarring.
Bladder problems after spinal-cord injury can also lead to kidney failure and death.
Associate professor of neurosurgery Dr Daniel Lu at the David Geffen School of Medicine said: “We were excited to see a positive effect in all five patients after only four sessions of mild magnetic stimulation.
“The benefit gradually wore off over two weeks, suggesting that the spinal cord’s neural circuitry retains a ‘memory’ of the treatment.”
Magnetic stimulation of the brain has been used to improve nerve-cell function for conditions ranging from depression to migraine.
So Prof Lu and his colleagues applied the same approach to the spinal cord to access the cellular machinery controlling urination.
Prof Lu explained: “Most spinal cord injuries are not anatomically complete; the spinal cord retains a weak, residual connection with the brain.
“We are restoring bladder function by amplifying these faint signals and enhancing the spinal circuits’ ability to respond to them.”
The researchers tested the technique after finding a precise pattern of stimulation on the spine that worked.
For four months, all five male participants underwent 15 minutes of weekly stimulation to the lumbar spine.
At first, the scientists saw no results but after four sessions, the patients began to experience measurable improvement.
Prof Lu said: “All five of the men regained the ability to urinate on their own during stimulation
“In one case, the patient was able to stop using a catheter and empty his bladder several times a day – up to two weeks after his last treatment.”
Each patient regained the ability to partially urinate at will and told the researchers their quality of life improved by 60 per cent.
Four of the men still had to use a catheter at least once each day but all reported a significant drop from an average of more than six times a day before treatment.
Their average bladder capacity also increased from 244 millimeters to 404 millimeters.
The volume of urine they produced voluntarily rose from 0 to 1120 cubic centimeters per day as well.
Prof Lu’s work uses the same concept as previous work he did to improve hand control in people with cervical spinal-cord injuries with surgically implanted electrical stimulation devices.
His laboratory will now enroll a larger number of participants in a second study to gain a deeper understanding of how magnetic stimulation alters spinal-cord activity.
His team will also explore whether different stimulation patterns improve responses in patients who didn’t benefit to the same degree as others in the study.
The magnetic-stimulation device for human use but its application in bladder rehabilitation is experimental.
The incidences of spinal cord injury is estimates at between 12 to 16 per million of the population, with a wide range in age from infants to the elderly and a majority of injuries caused by trauma, the NHS said.
The study was published in Scientific Reports.