Learning to walk again at TIRR Memorial Hermann NeuroRecovery Center

- A unique, state-of-the art facility just opened in the Texas Medical Center. All types of researchers at TIRR Memorial Hermann are using high-tech robotics and brain stimulation to help people walk again, who are paralyzed. We're talking about a team that consists of researchers, clinicians, neuropsychologists and engineers at the NeuroRecovery Center. 

We met up with Sara Domson, who is getting the chance to stand up again.  Only two years ago, she was a marathon runner and extraordinary athlete, then an accident stopped her in her tracks.  "I was exercising, using inversion boots on a chin-up bar, and the bar came out of the door frame.  I fell onto my back and dislocated two vertebrae and paralyzed my legs," explains Sara. After using a wheelchair the past few years, Sara loves being on her feet again, during physical therapy.  "It's incredible to be able to look people in the eye!  I constantly have to have someone reach things for me.  This is incredible!  It stretches my body, too.  Anyone who has sat through a long movie or a long car ride knows your body gets tired from sitting, so standing feels great," exclaims Sara!

Researchers will use five different types of robots to figure out which one works best, depending on the type of injury and even body shape.

We also talked to Kelly Davis, who is getting help from an exoskeleton, because Multiple Sclerosis makes her legs weak.  "It has helped tremendously with my balance and just with re-teaching my body how to walk again.  I've only been doing it for a month.  The study I'm enrolled in lasts fifteen hours, and I'm at hour thirteen.  It has been such a great experience, and the workout is tremendous!  I really hope to be part of other studies," says Kelly.

Dr. Gerard Francisco is the Director of the lab and also the Chief Medical Officer of TIRR.  He walked us around to each high-tech station to explain how it all works, including brain stimulators in their Modulation Lab.  "One of the other exciting things we're doing here is looking at how we can control and amplify small muscle signals that can be used by a person to control a robot.  Eventually, we're hoping that those small muscle signals from paralyzed muscles can be used to stimulate other muscles and allow a person to have to move his hand after a stroke or spinal cord injury.

Dr. Francisco says they can also use brain stimulation to prime the brain to use a robotic arm.  This can help patients, who are recovering from a stroke or spinal injury, learn how to fine-tune their motor skills. It sure has helped Christopher Peterson, who couldn't dress himself after a spinal cord injury. "We take a whole lot for granted because just picking up little things like coins - now that I had the injury, I had a hard time until I came to this - now I can pick up stuff, button stuff.  My wife is amazed that I can take better care of myself now," says Christopher Peterson.  Christopher says months of typical rehab didn't help, but he started using his hand again after only ten days of this treatment.  Researchers here are using all types of therapy, from single-pulse brain stimulation to magnetic stimulation, to try to help patients regain their independence.  Dr. Francisco says the future has never looked brighter for patients who are paralyzed or have weak muscles.  "It gives me a lot of hope that I won't be sitting in a wheelchair forever, and that I'll be able to walk around with everyone else and just go back to normal daily activities," says Sara. 


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