The goal of our paired brain and spinal cord stimulation project is to promote functional recovery in spinal cord injury (SCI) patients with hand function impairment. SCI can result in paralysis of hand function due to an interruption in the corticospinal tract, a direct connection between the brain and the spinal cord. The corticospinal tract is the main pathway responsible for voluntary movement of our limbs. By stimulating the corticospinal tract at its origin within the motor cortex and its termination within the cervical spinal cord, the project intends to strengthen these particular neural connections. The specificity of the approach is intended to maximize its effectiveness and minimize potential unwanted side effects.
The generous funding from the Travis Roy Foundation for this project, has enabled two major discoveries in our laboratory. First, pairing brain stimulation with spinal cord stimulation can dramatically strengthen muscle responses. This is true at the time that spinal cord stimulation is repetitive brain and spinal cord stimulation). Thus, we are able to create stronger connections between the brain region that initiates movement and spinal cord region that executes arm and hand movement. The second major advancement is our ability to stimulate the rat spinal cord while the animal is awake and freely moving. To do this, we partnered with biomedical engineers at the University of Texas at Dallas to produce very thin and supple electrodes that cover the cervical spinal cord. These devices are effective out of three months and counting. This allow us to test whether pairing brain and spinal cord stimulation over days to weeks can restore connections and improve function after spinal cord injury.