Clinical trial making exciting progress, thanks to you

The excitement for May’s Wings for Life World Run is already off the charts,  but it’s risen even higher with eye-opening results in one of the research projects that Wings for Life is able to support thanks to your entry fees and donations.

Centered on electrical stimulation of the body’s “super nerve” – the vagus nerve – the technology significantly boosts the results of conventional rehabilitation. As gaming standout David ‘GrandPOOBear’ Hunt found when he visited the University of Texas at Dallas, the project is already improving the lives of subjects in a clinical trial and could be broadly available within just five years!

GrandPOOBear, who himself spent months recovering from a spinal cord injury incurred in a snowboarding accident, sat down at UT Dallas with project lead Dr. Michael Kilgard, Executive Director and Chief Science Officer for the university’s biomedical device center. Kilgard explained that his team first used vagus stimulation to address conditions such as tinnitus and stroke, and it has been used for epilepsy as well, all proving that the method is safe and effective. “Spinal cord injuries are fairly rare, but they cause severe disabilities,” he adds. “With vagus stimulation, we strive to create new neural connections and restore the independence of those affected.”

The clinical trial looks to counter some of the damage spinal cord injury causes to the body’s nerve fibers. The procedure is relatively simple: While a participant engages in rehabilitation exercises, a small chip implanted in the left side of the neck sends electronic impulses to the brain via the vagus nerve. The brain learns to modify its circuits, and the nerve cells release neurotransmitters and begin to interconnect again. Initial results can be observed after just one week, subsequently building even further.

As a gaming pro, GrandPOOBear was delighted to find that some of the vagus stimulation tasks involved playing carefully developed video games with controllers designed to improve hand function. When he was shown video of patients’ improvement over time, the gamer was floored, having previously assumed that such results were still far in the future of scientific research.

“It blew my mind that we’re so close,” said GrandPOOBear.

“Today I saw people who after 30 sessions had drastically different movement in their hands. That’s [just] a month, essentially, of work with this implant. Think about how far it could go. It’s so exciting.”

Globally, there are roughly 250,000 new cases of spinal cord injury each year. The UT Dallas study is just one of 299 cutting-edge research projects and clinical trials worldwide that have been supported by Wings for Life, like these. While a cure for spinal cord injury is still to be found, steady progress has already been made, including the Swiss STIMO program results that first hit the headlines in 2018.

Having seen in prior experiments that vagus stimulation can triple – yes, triple – the number of arm-control neurons in the brain, Kilgard and his team not only want to improve arm and leg function, but also fine motor skills. Think about what it would be like if you couldn’t open a bottle of water, or feel a loved one holding your hand. Many patients say that regaining those simple abilities would greatly better their lives – and vagus simulation may be the solution.

The Texas team has adapted the vagus simulation technology to be small and inexpensive enough for patients to use at home, and Kilgard does anticipate that it will find widespread application in the treatment of spinal cord injury patients in approximately five years. But this can happen only if continued research funding is available.

And that’s just one of the reasons why GrandPOOBear is urging people everywhere to sign up for the run on May 5.

He says, “I’ll be involved in the Wings for Life World Run again this year, and I really encourage everybody out there to join in, too. It’s such a great feeling, because whether you run, roll a wheelchair, jog or walk, every bit of your entry fee goes to places like this amazing research center in Texas. In other words, when more people participate, more research can be funded. And by taking part yourself, you’re making a serious impact on spinal cord injury, today.”

Race day is getting closer all the time! If you haven’t registered to make your impact, you can sign up for the Wings for Life World Run here.