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Spinal Cord Injury Research

50% of complete spinal cord injury people cannot feel, but if you touch their leg the message travels through the spinal cord to the brain; but the brain cannot identify what this touch signal is because the brain identifies it as noise. We want to retrain the brain to understand the distorted sound and respond. Therefore, we have developed a new haptic virtual reality treatment called The Avatar Project which teaches the brain again what this distorted signal means, so that touch perception can be restored in people with complete injury.

We are working to develop therapies and new modalities that will help to retrain and rewire the brain and change the way the brain cells talk to one another.   In doing this we will be able to establish new series of therapies and establish new hospital protocols for spinal cord injuries in the critical Spinal Cord Injury Identification Period
that can change outcomes for up to 50% of future injuries. Find out more about the upcoming clinical trials.


Global Avatar Project
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In a recent discovery we revealed that 50% of people with complete spinal cord injury (SCI) still have surviving somatosensory nerve fibres at the level of the spine. For those with complete SCI this is hopeful news as it means — contrary to previous belief that communication to the brain had been severed by injury — that the brain is still receiving messages. This new SCI type is labelled “discomplete SCI” — a SCI person who cannot feel touch, but touch information is still forwarded from the foot to the brain. While recognition of surviving pathways in complete injuries has tremendous implications for SCI rehabilitation, currently no effective treatments exist to promote or restore touch perception among those with discomplete SCI. The purpose of the RESTORE Trial is to examine the efficacy and mechanisms of Immersive Virtual Reality Haptic Walking (VRHapticWalk) treatment for touch restoration in people with dis-complete/complete SCI.

This Trial has been funded by NSW Health. If you are interested in being a trial participant please contact us. We are recruiting people with a complete paraplegia.

In this clinical trial we are combining immersive haptic virtual reality (VR) treatment and trans-spinal electrical stimulation (tsES) non-invasive transcutaneous spinal cord stimulation (tSCS) to restore touch in people with complete spinal cord injury (SCI). There is growing evidence that spinal cord neuromodulation can promote functional recovery in SCI and specifically augment the benefits of VR training. Particularly, non-invasive transcutaneous spinal cord stimulation (tSCS)non-invasive electrical stimulation (e.g., tsES) is a well-tolerated form of neuromodulation that has shown tremendous promise to increase the excitability of surviving spinal nerve fibres facilitating weak nerve impulses to reach to and from the brain, restoring some sensorimotor functions in SCI.

Although loss of mobility is often considered the most serious consequence of spinal cord injury, individuals with spinal cord injury consistently rate pain as one of their most difficult problems to deal with. Neuropathic pain affects approximately 60% of persons with spinal cord injury, is experienced at or below the zone of injury, and is described as burning, sharp, unbearable, unremitting and terrifying.

Spinal cord injury neuropathic pain remains minimally responsive to existing pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatment.  We know that this pain is underpinned by brain processes. Over the last 12 years, findings pioneered by Associate Professor Gustin have been central in advancing the understanding of the neuroscience of spinal cord injury neuropathic pain. These findings revealed the key role of thalamocortical changes that underlie the development of spinal cord injury neuropathic pain. Associate Prof Gustin with collaborators from the US (Associate Professor Zina Trost and Corey Shum)  developed a novel immersive interactive virtual reality walking intervention (VRWalk) that targets this thalamocortical changes by reinstating sensorimotor input using visual illusion and thereby ameliorating spinal cord injury neuropathic pain. 


"Using virtual reality we actually are tricking the brain. By walking, running, climbing and touching in the virtual world, AND THE BRAIN ACTUALLY BELIEVES THIS IS REAL, the brain’s sensorimotor areas will be reactivated, and thereby the pain these people are in will be eased." says Associate Professor Gustin

This clinical trial has been funded by the US Department of Defence and is in collaboration with scientists at the Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA, USA) and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). If you are interested in participating, get in touch!  We are currently looking for participants with a complete spinal cord injury and neuropathic pain.

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