Sylvia Gustin / Monzurul Alam, NeuroRecovery Research Hub, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Combining Immersive Haptic Virtual Reality and Spinal Transcutaneous Electrical Stimulation

Funded in: 2022, 2023, 2024

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Problem: Surviving pathways in dis-complete injuries
Target:  Multimodal neuromodulative intervention to restore touch perception
Goal: Open new diagnostic and therapeutic beneficial avenues

Complete spinal cord injury (SCI) is associated with a complete loss of function such as mobility or sensation. However, for many, this clinical diagnosis may not be true in anatomical or even physiological senses. The neuroscientists recently revealed that 50 per cent of people clinically diagnosed with complete SCI still have surviving spinal sensory nerve fibres. Their study included people with complete SCI undertaking a brain imaging scan while they stimulated their big toe. Even though the participants did not feel the big toe stimulation, the researchers detected a significant signal in 50 per cent of SCI participants in brain areas generating the perception of touch. This became the first objective evidence of dis-complete SCI (disc-SCI) – the idea that many people with SCI who cannot feel still have touch information forwarded from below their injury level (e.g., big toe) to the brain.

While recognition of surviving pathways in complete injuries has significant implications for SCI rehabilitation, currently no effective biological or pharmacological treatment exists to promote or restore touch perception among those with disc-SCI. In the present project, the scientists will draw on their recent discovery and on technological innovations in SCI to develop and test a novel multimodal neuromodulative intervention to restore touch perception among individuals with disc-SCI. The intervention will combine a novel sensorimotor virtual reality (VR) haptic training platform with spinal transcutaneous electrical stimulation (tES) to restore touch perception among individuals with disc-SCI. Prof Sylvia Gustin pioneered fMRI protocols to detect disc-SCI. Dr Monzurul Alam optimised spinal tES methodology to restore sensorimotor function in SCI. Prof Zina Trost and Corey Shum pioneered VR technology for SCI. This project opens new, exciting diagnostic and therapeutic beneficial avenues in people with complete SCI by capitalizing on identification of cases that are disc-SCI and initiating sensory restoration.