Chet Moritz, Electrical & Computer Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, USA

Multisite spinal stimulation for walking and autonomic recovery following cervical SCI

Funded in: 2021, 2022, 2023

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Problem: No efficient treatment to restore movement and autonomic function
Target: Skin surface stimulation applied to both the neck and lower back
Goal: New, non-invasive spinal stimulation treatment

There are very few treatments that can restore movement and autonomic function to people with chronic spinal cord injuries. This is despite the fact that more than 50 percent of all injuries leave some level of sensation or movement, indicating that they are incomplete injuries to the spinal cord.  In addition, more than half of spinal cord injuries occur in the neck or cervical area of the spinal cord.

The research group has demonstrated that skin-surface (also known as transcutaneous) stimulation of the neck above the cervical spinal cord can lead to marked and prolonged improvements in hand function for people with chronic injuries. In addition, many of these participants also experienced improved strength, function and sensation in their legs, as well as improved autonomic control such as bladder or bowel function. Therefore, the scientists will test whether skin surface stimulation applied to both the neck and lower back can improve walking and autonomic function for people with chronic, incomplete spinal cord injury at the cervical level.

To test this approach, the researchers will combine this non-invasive spinal stimulation with intensive rehabilitation for standing, balance and walking function. Participants will receive either rehabilitation training alone, or training combined with stimulation in a cross-over design. The scientists will measure their walking function, balance, and strength throughout each phase of the study and check their bladder and other autonomic functions.

Based on their encouraging preliminary data, they expect walking function to improve when transcutaneous stimulation is combined with walking rehabilitation. The neuroscientists also expect that bladder and bowel function may improve due to stimulation and rehabilitation. If confirmed, these findings may pave the way for a new, non-invasive spinal stimulation treatment to improve walking and autonomic function for people with chronic, cervical spinal cord injuries.