A spinal cord injury (SCI) is a debilitating medical condition. It limits the function of movement and control in the body. As a result, having an SCI can lead to reduced aerobic fitness, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance. This is due to autonomic dysfunction, muscle wasting, increased regional and total body fat mass, and relative inactivity.
The Central Virginia VA Health Care System has unique expertise treating Veterans with these injuries.
The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs has awarded a grant for $3.7 million to the Central Virginia VA Health Care System and Virginia Commonwealth University. In turn, these researchers will study spinal epidural stimulation in people with spinal cord injuries. The grant is the first of its kind at a VA medical center.
VA research teams will collaborate on using spinal epidural stimulation treatment with a robotic suit. Hopefully, the result will be an improved quality of life for those suffering with spinal cord injuries. Researchers currently use VA’s robotic exoskeleton suits to improve SCI patients’ mobility and outlook for their prognosis.
New breakthrough can help people stand, step and walk
“A new, scientific breakthrough can help people stand, step and even walk again,” said Dr. Ashraf Gorgey. Gorgey is director of research for the Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders unit and principal investigator for this clinical trial. “It’s called lumbosacral epidural stimulation, or ES. Our research team has used the ‘ES Robot Suit’ for three months in one person with tetraplegia. The patient showed remarkable improvements in motor control. We aim to implant 20 Veterans who have a spinal cord injury with electrodes in their spine.”
Gorgey says they aim to enhance muscle volitional control. Dr. Robert Trainer supports the program by implanting the device. Muscle volitional control includes the ability to perform sit-to-stand activity, overground stepping and limit secondary complications in persons. This may include other benefits similar to improvement in the cardiovascular system and bladder functions. These are common side effects for SCI patients.
The study will measure the effectiveness of resistance training for Veterans using exoskeletal-assisted walking and ES. It will look for improvements in motor recovery, cardio-metabolic health and bladder control.
“The clinical trial will be conducted and completed entirely at CVHCS in Richmond,” Gorgey said.
Dr. Ashraf Gorgey
Gorgey has received several awards for studying the effects of electrical stimulation and testosterone replacement therapy interventions on parameters of physical activity in people with spinal cord injury. The effects include body composition, metabolic profile and mitochondrial health. He has published approximately 110 peer-reviewed articles, and presents his scientific findings both nationally and internationally.
Megan Kon is a public affairs specialist at the Central Virginia VA Health Care System. Photo by Mary Beatty.