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Collaborative Research to Eliminate Muscle Spasms Caused by Spinal Cord Injuries

The spinal cord contains a bundle of nerves and cellular structures that begins at the brain stem and continues down to the bottom of the spine, running down the middle of the back. It acts like a communication hub for the entire body, transmitting and processing signals, which allow different segments of the body to communicate with the brain. Damage to the spinal cord can cause changes in its function, either temporary or permanent. Depending on the area of the spine that was injured, the symptoms vary widely, from pain or numbness to partial or complete paralysis.

Spasticity – a condition in which certain muscles are continuously contracted – is a common and frustrating consequence of spinal cord injuries (SCI). It results from the body’s inability to control and coordinate muscle movements.

“The most debilitating aspect of spasticity after spinal cord injury is involuntary muscle activity – also known as muscle spasms,” explains Jorge Bohorquez, an associate professor in practice in the University of Miami (UM) College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. “Spasms interfere with everyday tasks and limit rehabilitation. Treatments are not always effective, which lowers a patient’s health-related quality of life.”

Jorge Bohorquez will be working with Monica Perez, an associate professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at UM’s Miller School of Medicine (MSOM), to manage muscle spasms using tendon vibrations and ultimately understand the spinal circuits responsible for the spasms. The research project, initiated by Christine Thomas, entitled “Closed loop control of vibration for muscle spasms after human spinal cord injury: efficacy and mechanism,” is made possible through collaborations between the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the UM MSOM and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis was founded in 1985 with the help of Barth A. Green, a professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery in UM’s MSOM, and NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti after Nick’s son, Marc, sustained a SCI injury during a college football game. The Miami Project – a Center of Excellence at the UM MSOM – is a research program that conducts cutting edge discovery, translational, and clinical investigations targeting spinal cord and brain injuries.

The research project, which will be funded for 5 years by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will focus on improving a previously designed wearable device that delivers vibration, by using consumer-oriented input.

“We want to examine the efficacy of tendon vibration in reducing muscle spasms by treating spasms as they occur, which personalizes the intervention for maximal clinical and user impact,” explains Bohorquez. “This treatment method is attractive to many individuals with SCI because it may reduce or eliminate the need of spasm medication.”

By combining the power of long-term non-invasive recordings with functional, clinical and participant reported outcomes, the research will reveal the mechanisms behind vibrations on muscular spasms and, more importantly, the rationale to improve this novel approach to spasm management after SCI and other neurological disorders.

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