Cleveland Doctors have implanted electrodes in Christopher Reeve's chest in an experimental procedure that could someday enable the paralyzed "Superman" star to breathe without a respirator.
It has already enabled the actor to regain his sense of smell.
The 50-year-old actor was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident in 1995. Since then, he has lived with the constant hum of a respirator pumping air into his lungs.
After the electrodes were implanted in his diaphragm and the respirator was turned off, "All you could hear was me breathing through my nose -- regular rhythmic breathing from my nose for the first time in nearly eight years," Reeve said Thursday.
So far he has been able to breathe for about 15 minutes without a respirator. Before the surgery, Reeve was able to use his neck muscles to breathe without a respirator for only a few minutes. With the stimulator in place, he can breathe more easily and more deeply, said Dr. Anthony DiMarco of University Hospitals of Cleveland.
Use of the electrodes eventually might strengthen Reeve's diaphragm muscles enough to allow him to do without a respirator altogether, said Dr. John McDonald, director of the spinal cord injury program at Washington University in St. Louis. He has helped design the actor's treatment program.
However, DiMarco said he did not expect Reeve to ever be able to breathe without some stimulation because the damage to the actor's spinal cord cut off the brain's commands to the diaphragm.
The actor also has his sense of smell when the respirator is off. During one of those sessions, his medical team brought coffee, oranges and other test objects into his room.
"I actually woke up and smelled the coffee," he said.
The implant should also allow Reeve to speak more normally.
Reeve was the third person to undergo the procedure, which was done Feb. 28 at the Cleveland hospital.