VA's implant tests could help paralyzed veterans to walk again

A study will try to see if epidural stimulators can improve motor activity

Medical professionals at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Virginia are using the latest technology to try to turn paralyzed service members into "cyborgs" – an electrical implant in the spine is designed to stimulate the body's sensorimotor networks, allowing the vets to walk again.

Dr. Ashraf Gorgey, chief of spinal cord injury research at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, said a study will try to see if epidural stimulators can help paralyzed vets improve motor activity and operate their cardiovascular and bladder functions.


"With this study, we might get companies like Medtronic and Boston Scientific to start creating something more specific for spinal cord injuries," he said. "We also want to show that you don't need invasive surgery to use this device. We use just a needle under fluoroscopy, and through the needle, we thread the leads in."

Gorgey said he plans to implant epidural stimulators in 20 veterans.

Retired Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Burch, who lost much of the use of his hands and all use of his legs in a September 2015 accident, is already onboard and ready for a better future.

"Even thinking about walking is crazy. I look at this as a steppingstone to a future where others like me can walk. I look at my participation in this research as a way of helping people out," Burch said during an interview in March with

Previously he had been wearing an exoskeleton that helps him walk.

"In Josh's circumstance, the signal that's coming from his brain through his spinal cord is interrupted. So now we are going to replace this signal with external signals that help trigger a step in movement. By using the exoskeleton, we can train him to … hopefully stand up and walk again," Gorgey said.


Burch got a temporary new implant March 8 and then received a permanent one April 2.

He is eager to be a part of the study, which was made possible by a $3.7 million grant from the Defense Department under the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

"And if I don't walk? I'm going to be happy for the research that comes from the study," he said.