Christopher Reeve Surprises Doctors Again

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
January 3, 2003

Christopher Reeve, like Superman, may be able to do things medical experts previously thought impossible. Looking at his brain with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists were surprised to find that his brain could detect his body's movements. This does not agree with the principle of "use it or lose it," which refers to how the brain will reorganize itself if a part of the body is not used.

Reeve's brain seems to have stayed attentive, waiting to receive signals from his body about sensations and movement. This result is encouraging, although it has been seen in only one person so far. Researchers have been concerned when progress is made with patients with spinal injuries: what benefit is such progress in the muscles and nerves if the brain stops being prepared to receive signals from the damaged spine? This study provides hope that the brain does not lose its ability to interpret and follow signals from the injured body part once some function is regained.

In 1995, at the age of 42, Reeve was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a horseback riding accident. The accident severed most of the communication between nerves involved in processing signals from the brain and the body. Without these signals, voluntary muscles cannot move (such as when you want to raise your arm to ask a question). The muscles atrophy (weaken) because they no longer receive instructions to move. To combat muscle atrophy, Reeve started physical therapy soon after the accident. In 1999, Reeve undertook an experimental therapy where his muscles were exercised for him.

For the first five years after the accident, Reeve could not voluntarily move his muscles or detect any touch below his shoulders. But in September of 2000, that changed. His index finger moved. During the past few years, Reeve has regained control of some of his muscles; for example, he can move some fingers and walk along the bottom of a swimming pool. He can also perceive sensation over 70% of his body. For example, he can now feel his wife's hand on top of his hand. Most of the time his breathing is assisted by a ventilator, but he can now go for 90 minutes at a time breathing on his own, without the mechanical help.

This is the first documented case of a person with such a severe injury recovering this much function. It is promising news to researchers and paralyzed patients. It is important to note, however, that Reeve went through an unusual amount of intense physical therapy (called activity-based therapy) for many years to reach this point.


  1. "Reeve confounds medical experts again," by Paul Recer, Seattle Times, December 10, 2002.
  2. Corbetta, M., Burton, H., Sinclair, R.J., Conturo, T.E., Akbudak, E., and McDonald, J.W. Functional reorganization and stability of somatosensory-motor cortical topography in a tetraplegic subject with late recovery, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 99, Issue 26, 17066-17071, December 24, 2002.
  3. Washington University in St. Louis - Christopher Reeve and activity-based therapy.
  4. Against All the Odds, by Jeffrey Kluger, Time, September 23, 2002, pages 54-56.

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