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‘Life-changing’ discovery for people with spinal cord injury

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University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine led the research

Blood pressure can be controlled without drugs after spinal cord injury, new research has revealed.

Spinal cord stimulators can bridge the body’s autonomous regulation system, controlling blood pressure without medication, the study found.

Led by Dr Aaron Phillips at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and Grégoire Courtine, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), the study has been hailed as having “life-changing” consequences for people with spinal cord injury.

“The spinal cord acts as a communication line allowing the brain to send signals to tell the body such as when and how to move, as well as how to control vital functions, including blood pressure,” says Dr Phillips, co-principal investigator and assistant professor at the CSM.

Dr Richi Gill and his family

“This communication line is broken after a spinal cord injury. We created the first platform to understand the mechanisms underlying blood pressure instability after spinal cord injury, which allowed us to develop a new cutting-edge solution.”

And the solution is already delivering rewards, with Dr Richi Gill, the study’s first participant in a series of clinical trials.

Dr Gill broke his neck three years ago in a boogie board accident while on holiday with his young family.

Getting mobile again with the use of a wheelchair is the first thing most people notice, he says. However, for those with a spinal cord injury, what is happening inside the body also severely affects their quality of life.

“What many people don’t realise is that a spinal cord injury prevents some systems within the body from regulating automatically,” says the 41-year-old.

“My blood pressure would drop drastically, leaving me fatigued, dizzy, and unable to focus. The condition can be life threatening, requiring medication for life.

“It’s exciting to see the science help push things forward. I’m excited that Calgary will be one of the sites for a clinical trial. Research made a positive effect on my life and I’m glad others will benefit, too.”

In the study, targeted epidural electrical stimulation (EES) of the spinal cord was used to stabilise haemodynamics, or blood flow throughout the body, allowing for vital organs to maintain an appropriate supply of blood.

The researchers discovered the exact placement on the spine for their stimulator, and the circuitry of the sympathetic nervous system underlying blood pressure control.

This new knowledge allowed for the development of a neuroprosthetic closed-loop communication system, to replace lost haemodynamic control.

“We are really excited that people with spinal cord injury are able to stop their blood pressure medication and get back to enjoying a full daily routine with improved blood flow to their brain and organs,” says Dr Sean Dukelow, clinician scientist at the CSM and author on the study.

“People feel more alert, are able to be upright and in their wheelchair without losing consciousness, and over the long-term we think this will reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

Work is already underway to take the project forward into mainstream use, adds Dr Courtine.

“We are going to collaborate with a company called Onward to develop a neurostimulation system dedicated to the management of blood pressure in people with spinal cord injury,” he says.

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