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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Paralympian is not alone in regaining ability to walk

Monique van der Vorst greets the handcyclists at the 2011 Rome Marathon (Image: Giagnori Eidon/LatinContent/GettyImages)

A 27-year-old woman has lost her place the London 2012 Paralympic Games in what appear to be the most unusual of circumstances: Monique van der Vorst, formerly paralysed from the waist down, has regained her ability to walk. Perhaps surprisingly, though, neuroscientists say her experience is not unprecedented.

van der Vorst was a handcyclist with national and international titles to her name. She has now traded her handbike for a bicycle - and has just been given one of 11 spots on the Dutch women's professional cycling team, Rabobank, according to IoL News.

When she was 13, van der Vorst lost the use of her right leg after routine ankle surgery damaged her nerves. She took up handcycling, but in 2008, while she was training for the Beijing Olympics, she was hit by a car. Her spinal cord was damaged, leaving her paralysed from the waist down, yet she still entered the Olympics later that year - and won two silver medals.

Last year, she was involved in another accident, this time with a cyclist. The accident left her legs tingling, and after a spell in hospital and some rehabilitation, she was able to walk again.

Although van der Vorst's recovery remain unexplained, that's largely because of the speed of her recovery, according to IoL News. In fact, regaining the use of paralysed limbs is more common than we realise, according to Geoff Raisman, a neurologist at University College London.

"A very considerable body of careful patient data...[collected] over a considerable period of time indicates that over 40 per cent of spinal injured patients initially paralysed will walk again," he told New Scientist.

Even if natural recovery is not possible, new medical technology could help some people with paralysis. For instance, earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles used electrical stimulation of the spinal cord to restore function to the legs of a paralysed man.

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