Michael Kilgard, University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, USA

Promoting Recovery from Cervical SCI by Pairing Rehabilitation with Vagus Nerve Stimulation

Funded in: 2016, 2017, 2018

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Problem: Effect of physical therapy on plasticity and functional benefits is limited

Target: Stimulation of the vagus nerve during physical therapy to promote neural plasticity and the functional benefit

Goal: A new therapy for spinal cord injury


Our brain and spinal cord learn new things every day. Learning causes new connections between neurons. This rewiring process is called neural plasticity. Physical therapy following spinal cord injury is known to improve sensory and motor function by engaging the same neural plasticity mechanisms that are used for normal learning. The goal of this project is to stimulate a nerve in the neck called the vagus nerve during physical therapy to promote neural plasticity and enhance the functional benefit.

Recent studies have shown that the enhanced plasticity caused by vagus nerve stimulation can improve sensory function in tinnitus patients and motor function in stroke patients (https://vimeo.com/52860367).
There is growing evidence that vagus nerve stimulation during physical therapy could improve functional gains in patients with spinal cord injury. Vagus nerve stimulation is known to be safe and has been used in seventy thousand epilepsy patients for twenty years. Successful completion of this research project would support clinical studies of a new therapy to promote recovery from spinal cord injury.