In a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Jacob McPherson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, introduces a new therapy that seeks to help the nervous system rewire after a spinal cord injury. Titled, “Targeted, activity-dependent spinal stimulation produces long-lasting motor recovery in chronic cervical spinal cord injury,” the goal of the work is to use technology to leverage the nervous system’s inherent ability to adapt and reorganize, and exploit that capacity to enhance recovery after injury.
When the spinal cord sustains an injury, many of the neurons, or “wires,” that connect the brain with the spinal cord are damaged or lost, preventing signals generated in the brain from being executed by the muscles. This disruption in communication often results in severe motor impairments. In their study, McPherson and his colleague Steve Perlmutter, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington, used a recurrent neural-computer interface to synchronize the delivery of targeted spinal electrical stimulation with the arrival of specific motor commands descending from the brain. This approach restored the neural activation patterns that would have been present in the spinal cord before the injury.
McPherson and Perlmutter found that over time, their approach enabled rats with a severe cervical spinal cord injury to recovery 63% of their pre-injury skilled reaching ability. Additionally, they found that the therapeutic benefits lasted for up to three weeks after stimulation was removed, distinguishing it from currently available technologies. Although still in the early stages of development, their encouraging results suggest that the approach holds much promise.
At FIU, Dr. McPherson is building upon this research by adapting it to neuropathic pain. Approximately 80% of individuals with a spinal cord injury experience neuropathic pain, and McPherson hopes that the approach introduced in this study – using technology to enable and guide the nervous system’s own adaptive capacity – will provide a new therapeutic option.
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