Christopher Reeve Breathes on Own

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
March 25, 2003

Actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed eight years ago, can now breathe on his own thanks to an experimental surgical procedure that took place on February 28, 2003, in Cleveland, Ohio. The procedure is called "diaphragm pacing via laparoscopy." The procedure involves threading wires attached to electrodes into the diaphragm. The wires are attached outside the body to a control box that sends electrical signals to the diaphragm.

The procedure was possible because Reeve's phrenic nerves were not injured in the accident eight years ago. Phrenic nerves carry the signal for a breath to be taken. In Reeve's case, the phrenic nerves are intact, but they no longer receive the signals from the brainstem to initiate a breath. It's like a remote-controlled toy airplane with the controls lost. It can still function, but it needs something to tell it what to do and when to do it.

But what if the phrenic nerves could be told to function by a source outside the body? Researchers at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, had experimented with attaching electrodes to the diaphragm in the place where the phrenic nerves innervate the diaphragm. This area is called the "motor point." When the motor point is stimulated, the muscles in the diaphragm contract, bringing air into the lungs. When the nerve is not stimulated, muscles in the diaphragm relax and the lungs deflate. This cycle of muscle contraction and relaxation is the way we breathe.

Reeve can "breathe" this way for approximately 15 minutes. His muscles need to build up tone again, after many years of not being used. This form of breathing is liberating, because for the first time in eight years, Reeve can smell. This is because he is breathing through his nose and mouth during those 15 minutes, not through a tube in his throat. It is also liberating because it frees him from the constant noise of the ventilator, which makes whooshing noises as air is pushed in and out of the tube to his throat.

Scientists predict that Reeve may be able to stop using the tube in his throat to breathe in about three months. As his muscles continue to get stronger through these 15-minute training sessions, Reeve should be able to breathe on his own for longer and longer periods of time. Not only will he enjoy the relative quiet of his own breathing, he will be able to smell scents and to talk. Reeve has had trouble talking with the breathing tube in his throat. Right now he can only talk in a whisper, but with time, his voice should get stronger, too.

Reeve has again proved that hard work and medical advances -- and staying hopeful about his future -- are the keys to his amazing progress.

Did You Know?


About one in 10 patients with a spinal cord injury needs mechanical breathing assistance for a while after the injury. About a third of these people will need the mechanical breathing assistance for the rest of their lives. (Source: Reeve Has Experimental Surgery, The New York Times, March 14, 2003.)


  1. Reeve Has Experimental Surgery, The New York Times, March 14, 2003.
  2. Reeve Smelling Coffee Again, and More, The New York Times, March 14, 2003.
  3. Reeve Breathing on His Own, The New York Times, March 13, 2003.

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