Shared goals in spinal cord injury rehabilitation

Siobhan Fitzpatrick and Jim Nuzzo are testing methods that may have the potential to improve existing connections between motor neurons within the spinal cord in people with neurological injury.

People who have experienced spinal cord injury or stroke often lose the ability to activate their muscles, as a result of damage to neural pathways involved in motor control.

Siobhan and Jim are working in A/Prof Janet Taylor’s lab. Their methods are designed to enhance plasticity, or changes in the way neurons communicate, such that the message the neurons send to the muscles will become stronger.

Dr Siobhan Fitzpatrick and Dr Jim Nuzzo

An experimental setup using magnetic stimulation to induce changes in the neural pathways supplying muscles.

Siobhan induces this plasticity by stimulating a person’s brain and motor neurons to the arm with carefully timed pairs of magnetic and electrical current, which are designed to increase the output of the motor neurons.

In contrast, Jim uses physical training to induce plasticity, asking people to bend their arm as fast as possible, with the idea that this vigorous exercise induces just the right nerve-firing pattern to increase motor neuron output.

Both researchers measure changes in biceps muscle response to direct spinal cord stimulation before and after a period of stimulation or exercise.

By exchanging technical expertise and knowledge of the scientific literature, Siobhan and Jim are shedding light on how the activity of spinal motor pathways can be manipulated to improve muscle performance.

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