At the Texas Biomedical Device Center Dr. Seth Hays and his team have developed a new electrical stimulation technique for improving stroke and spinal cord recovery.
Loss of movement and the ability to feel touch is common after injury to the brain, spine, or nerves. In the United States, a stroke—which damages the brain—occurs once every forty seconds. Moreover, millions of more people are living with spinal cord injuries and neuropathy. Despite their prevalence, there simply aren’t enough consistently effective therapies to alleviate this damage. Rehabilitation can help some people, but most are not satisfied with their results. Thus, we need to develop better therapies to restore independence for individuals suffering from these diseases.
Dr. Seth Hays and his team have developed a new strategy to boost recovery after a stroke or spinal cord injury. This technique uses electrical stimulation of a nerve in the neck, called the vagus nerve. Stimulating this nerve rewires the neurons in the brain. Applying this stimulation, at just the right time during a patient’s exercise routine, can direct positive changes in the brain. This rewiring can retrain the way certain neurons communicate and thus enhance the benefits of rehabilitation.
At Texas Biomedical Device Center they are now translating this promising therapy to patients in order to improve movement and touch sensation. Dr. Hays and his team are testing vagus nerve stimulation paired with rehabilitation in three ongoing clinical trials, including patients with stroke or spinal cord injuries. Recently, their therapy for spinal cord injury was designated as a Breakthrough Device by the FDA, highlighting the promise of this approach. These groundbreaking clinical studies are a key step in delivering more effective therapeutic methods to help patients.
To support these trials, they have developed a next-generation miniature device to stimulate the nerve and range of computer-based telerehabilitation games for patients to use at home. Additionally, in their lab work, Dr. Hays’ team is pushing the boundaries of this approach to see if other symptoms that are common after neurological injuries, like speech disorders or bladder dysfunction can also be treated.
If vagus nerve stimulation enhances rehabilitation, can this be used to help other conditions? Yes! Exciting research at UT Dallas is exploring Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing loss, and even autism.
Medical devices and rehabilitation can be expensive and inconvenient. Dr. Hays and his team are working towards making these important tools more cost-effective and usable at home so that more people will have access to them.
For more information, tune in to our Research 411 talk show on Tuesday, May 11th from 11 AM to 12 PM to hear Dr. Seth Hays speak on this fascinating topic.