Grant Roundup: Millions Awarded for Groundbreaking SCI Research

Grant Roundup: Millions Awarded for Groundbreaking SCI Research

The latest spinal cord injury research grants show a lot of promise.

I frequently scour the web to bring you the latest developments in spinal cord injury treatments. But as everyone knows, these breakthroughs don’t happen without a lot of hard work by research scientists — and plenty of funding. Here are some of the latest spinal cord injury research grants, awarded to Kessler Foundation and Marquette University.

Improving Cognitive Assessment of People With SCI

Traumatic spinal cord injury (tSCI) often leads to cognitive impairment, affecting up to 60 percent of individuals living with this condition. “The challenge lies in assessing cognitive functions in people with tSCI, as many existing tests rely on upper limb function for responses, which can exclude a significant portion of the SCI population,” explained Silvana Lopes Da Costa, a research scientist at the Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research at Kessler Foundation.

A $569,006 grant will support a study to address this gap. Dr. Costa is leading a project to develop and test a hands-free eye-tracker-based cognitive assessment. Unlike traditional methods, this technology enables participants to respond by fixating their eyes on specific locations on a monitor, eliminating the need for motor function.

“Our ongoing studies have revealed the limitations of existing cognitive assessments for individuals with tSCI. This hands-free approach has shown promise in pilot studies and offers a much-needed solution to assess cognitive functions independently of motor abilities,” said Dr. Costa. The outcomes of this research will not only enhance cognitive assessment for those with tSCI but also hold promise for individuals with other motor disabilities, such as traumatic brain injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and stroke.

Pilot-Testing SCI-PASS

A second grant, totaling $199,485, will support the SCI-PASS. It will be developed to assess the relationship between the quality of personal assistance services and secondary complications in people with SCI.

Personal assistance services play a vital role in the daily lives of individuals with SCI, helping them complete essential tasks to prevent and manage secondary complications. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges faced by this community, highlighting the importance of these services.

“Existing data sources offer limited information about personal assistance service utilization, unmet needs, or satisfaction,” said principal investigator Jeanne Zanca. “The SCI-PASS survey will provide valuable insights into the impact of personal assistance services on secondary complications, ultimately improving the quality of care and the lives of people with SCI.” Dr. Zanca is chair of the Institutional Review Board and assistant director, Center for Spinal Cord Injury Research at Kessler Foundation.

This project will involve designing, pilot-testing, and implementing the survey to gather preliminary data on service utilization and satisfaction, and its relationship with secondary complications. The findings will inform future initiatives, supporting advocacy and policy efforts to enhance personal assistance services.

Studying Wearable Upper-Extremity Robotic

Finally, Ghaith J. Androwis, senior research scientist in the Kessler Foundation’s Center for Mobility and Rehabilitation Engineering Research, received a $50,000 one-year grant to study a wearable upper-extremity robotic orthosis for people with SCI.

Among an estimated 17,700 new traumatic SCI cases reported each year in the United States, about half of those injuries are accompanied by arm and hand movement disabilities. While numerous rehabilitation technologies, including wearable robotics, help with hand and arm movement for daily functioning, few are thoroughly evaluated to see if they’re actually effective.

“Our study will examine the effect of the wearable upper extremity robotic MyoPro orthotic on improving and recovering arm and hand movement function and activity of daily living in persons with chronic SCI,” said Dr. Androwis. “In addition, the study will evaluate whether providing visual/haptic feedback while the patients are assisted with the MyoPro orthotic could improve therapeutic effects of the intervention.

He added that the study’s findings will support the use of robotic assistance and real-time feedback to help people with SCI move their upper extremities.

Sources for Kessler Foundation Grants here and here.

Studying Connection Between DNA and Axon Growth

Dr. Murray Blackmore, professor of biomedical sciences in the Marquette University College of Health Sciences, has been awarded a $415,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the connection between DNA structure and the growth of axons to aid recovery for people who live with SCI.  

The axon is the part of a nerve cell that carries signals from the brain to other parts of the body. These cable-like structures are damaged and predominantly dormant following many spinal cord injuries, which means helping them grow is key to SCI recovery.  

One of Blackmore’s goals is to identify sets of transcription factors — proteins that can identify specific segments of DNA that allow neurons to regenerate better.  

“My lab’s goal with this award is to take advantage of a transition in nervous system development where a maturing neuron abruptly switches from an intrinsic state that allows axon growth to one in which axon growth is slow or abortive,” Blackmore says. “Identifying transcription factors that govern this process allow us to test for their effects on regenerative growth of axons that will hopefully lead to breakthroughs in rehabilitating individuals with nervous system trauma.” 

To read more on Dr. Blackmore’s research, click here.

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