Experimental Procedure 'Rewires' 6-Year-Old's Nervous System

If the nerves haven't healed on their own within the first three to six months, it is unlikely they ever will, Belzberg said. Six months out, Alex was at the point where the chances of his regaining function were "very, very poor," he added.

This is where Belzberg's novel surgical approach came in.

Playing Connect the Nerves

"Basically, I'm robbing from Peter to pay Paul; look for something that's working so I can rob at least part of it to help where something's not working," Belzberg said.

While rewiring healthy nerves to do the work of defunct ones is a technique used for many years, Belzberg is the first to treat transverse myelitis this way.

If successful, the procedure will restore movement to Alex's right arm, with virtually no adverse effects.

"It certainly won't be normal function [of the arm] but it should eventually have a smooth bend," he said.

In the bargain, Alex will lose some of the strength in his right shoulder where the nerve was rerouted and he will have a numb patch on his left foot where sensory nerve fibers from Alex's left leg were taken for the graft, but these should be the only effects.

The procedure is certainly not without risk, however, Belzberg said.

"This is a technically challenging and demanding operation," he said. "Everyone's wired slightly differently and you have to figure out how to hook the nerves together. There's risk that you're going to damage other nerves that are still functioning or the blood vessels that go with those nerves."

"Now that he's through the surgery … and doing great, of course, I can say I'm glad we did it," McShane said, but the decision was a difficult one to make. "He was doing really well [with the pain and breathing] and we were hesitant to put him through that and possibly set back his recovery."

After a post-op check, it appeared that no further damage was done to Alex's nerves during the operation, and he was up and walking again two days later, McShane said.

Belzberg said, "Now we have to wait an enormous amount of time for the nerves on the inside to regenerate."

This occurs at the rate of one inch per month, so there will be a six- to eight-month lag before any changes will be detectable in Alex.

"Once the changes appear, we'll use aggressive physical therapy to strengthen the arm and help with the coordination," he said.

Becker, who directs this kind of restorative therapy at Kennedy Krieger's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, said Alex is lucky to have youth on his side.

"You'd think it would be strange" to have the nerve that is supposed to move one muscle now control another, he said, "but the nervous system is very plastic. It learns quickly and the younger you are, the easier the learning curve."

Although he has months of recovery stretching ahead of him, McShane said, Alex "is a trooper."

"He's only 6 and he's been through so much [but] his personality is completely the same, he's the same kid. He has a spirit that cannot be broken."

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