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Autumn Connections 2020

Welcome to your online edition of Connections!

Here you will find some of the key highlights taken from our bi-annual newsletter, such as an interview with our long time collaborator, Professor Baker, as well as a brief Q&A with the latest trustee to join our board, Tara Stewart. 

If you would like to receive a printed copy, please get in touch with us at and we will to get one sent out to you as soon as possible.

Meeting Patient Priorities

Restoring hand and arm function

The muscles of the hands and arms are fundamental to living life independently. They play a key role in being able to feed, dress and transfer yourself. When an injury to the spine occurs at the neck, these important muscles can be impacted. 

The corticospinal tract, or CST, is part of the spinal cord that primarily controls hand and finger movements in humans. This pathway can be severely disrupted or even destroyed by a high-level spinal cord injury. 

Recent findings, however, suggest another part of the spinal cord, the reticulospinal tract (RST), which ordinarily controls gross movements such as trunk and arm extension/flexion, can actually take over some of the role of the CST. 

Spinal Research is funding a PhD studentship, led by Professor Stuart Baker at Newcastle University, focusing on functional improvements after stimulating the RST. Its aim is to help people with a spinal cord injury regain some control of their hands and arms. The team are trialling a device which pairs auditory clicks with electrical stimulation of the hand or forearm muscles to induce lasting changes in the muscles controlling grasp. 

In previous studies, the team found that reticular neurons respond powerfully to loud auditory clicks. And when they paired the clicks with electrical stimuli delivered to the muscles, it led to changes in motor outputs.

Professor Baker’s device is small and portable, which makes it accessible and easily usable for people in their everyday life. Because the device is wearable, it can be used to deliver therapeutic stimuli outside the lab allowing continuous stimulation over many days to enhance the motor skills. 

Meet the Scientist

An interview with Professor Baker


One of our ambassadors, Lolly, spoke to Professor Stuart Baker over zoom to find out more about his work on electrical stimulation in spinal cord research.

Professor Baker is professor of movement neuroscience at Newcastle University, and specialises in the neural control of movement and rehabilitation after injury to the motor system, amongst other things.

Q: I have a C4/5 complete spinal cord injury which means I cannot use my arms or hands and therefore lack any independence. How could your work impact that?  

In most people with an injury like yours, some connections are spared from brain to spinal cord, but the limited number of these spared fibres mean that only very weak muscle activation can be produced. My interest is in finding ways to strengthen these residual fibres to generate functionally-meaningful contractions. Until now, most investigators focussed on the major pathway which controls movement in humans, the corticospinal tract. But I’ve been working on a different system, the reticulospinal tract. This is less important in uninjured people, but after an injury it could play a much more significant role.  

I’ve developed a portable electronic device which pairs weak electrical stimuli to a muscle with clicks to an earpiece, and thereby strengthens reticulospinal pathways. It comprises of a box which can be worn, with wires running to sticky electrodes on a muscle and an earpiece. Importantly, we are not trying to augment function by the action of the device. Instead, we are trying to rewire the nervous system to generate changes, which will last even when the device is taken off.  We have shown, in stroke patients, that wearing the device for four weeks produces a significant improvement of hand function. It should provide similar benefits to tetraplegics.

Q: This sounds like it could make a big difference to our lives. What are the next steps?  

My fantastic PhD student Maria Germann, who is funded by Spinal Research, has spent the first part of her project improving the device stimulation protocols and carrying out a huge number of experiments in uninjured volunteers. The next thing we want to do is run a clinical trial, in injured subjects, to try to demonstrate a beneficial effect on upper limb function. We are hoping to run the trial early in 2021, in one or more centres in the UK.  

Q: How long before any therapies are widely available?  

Firstly, we need to run the trial to prove carefully if the device provides benefit. That’s the easy part; we should have results by the middle of next year. Much harder is making the device more widely available. We need to obtain a CE mark under the Medical Device Directive. Perversely, one challenge is that the device is too simple. Venture capitalists are put off as they fear that other companies could easily make something similar, which would stop us recouping their investment. These are the biggest barriers to translating advances to help patients. But I remain hopeful that we can navigate a route through to make our device available.  

Q: How has the pandemic affected your work?  

My work in human volunteers had to stop during the lockdown but fortunately Maria had already gathered a lot of data and we used the time to write it up. We are now back up and running. Currently doing more tests in uninjured volunteers at the same time as planning for the clinical trial.  

Welcome to our new Chief Executive


Harvey, who lives with a spinal cord injury himself, has joined us to lead the organisation into the next stage of our strategic vision – to deliver effective treatments and technologies to those living with SCI. 

Harvey brings with him a wealth of experience from the Finance & Technology sector as well as a track record of building a sustainable not-for-profit organisation in the SCI rehabilitation sector. 

"As a person who lives with a spinal cord injury, I am all too familiar with the need and the urgency to bring about treatments and technologies for our community.

The time is right for us to direct focus to turning valuable scientific knowledge into treatments and technologies to repair and restore the spinal cords of those that live with the daily realities of paralysis. 

I look forward to applying my creativity, passion and lived experience to this role and help deliver results to an SCI community that deserves a much-needed win. I look forward to working together, as a community, to achieve our strategic vision."

Meet the Trustee

Q&A with Tara Stewart


What motivated you to become a Spinal Research trustee? I have a close personal connection to the charity following my riding accident in 2014 which left me in a wheelchair. I was excited by the work Spinal Research was doing to help fund a large range of promising therapies as well as sponsoring scientists. After my own fundraising efforts, I was delighted to be appointed an ambassador and then a trustee, allowing me more involvement in the charity’s work.


What are you most excited about? Six years ago, it felt like there were a lot of projects being funded but no real front runners. Now it feels like we are on the edge of some exciting breakthroughs. The advances made with neuromodulation and the discovery around Chondroitinase and its ability to break down spinal scar tissue are just two examples. Neuromodulation is already being used in human trials.

Whilst we have some way to go before curing paralysis, small advances in things like hand function can make a huge difference to daily life, and are well within our grasp in the next few years, if you’ll pardon the pun! 

What are the challenges? The current pandemic situation has decimated funding sources for so many charities. Research projects have had to be paused, may have to start over and we don’t know when things will return to normal.  

Despite being underfunded, scientific research has made remarkable progress in understanding the spinal cord and how to repair it. Turning scientific findings into real world treatments and guiding them over regulatory hurdles into everyday clinical practise is still required, but apart from the pandemic, these are things that can be tackled, and I look forward to doing my part to help.

Do you have a message for our supporters? There are lots of reasons to be cheerful! It feels to me like we are moving into a period of forward momentum and change. Stay positive! Oh - and keep donating, obviously.  

World’s Strongest Disabled Man Double Challenge

This summer, Pete Linnett – 3x World’s Strongest Disabled Man – successfully completed a 100-mile handcycle from Leicester to Skegness with six of his closest friends.

Pete, who was born with spina bifida and uses crutches to walk, said that “during lockdown, a friend and I wanted to keep fit and were regularly cycling 18-25 miles, so we decided to do the ride as a fundraiser. It snowballed from there and ended up with 7 of us doing it.”


And then just two weeks after completing the handcycle, Pete – who is also a 4x World Bench Press Champion – was joined by some of the world’s strongest disabled athletes and his friends to attempt his latest challenge: bench press a set of 60kg continually over a period of 6 hours. 

Between these two feats of endurance he managed to raise over £3,000 for Spinal Research. The next challenge sees Pete going to Iceland to defend his World Champion Title! 

Best of luck, Pete!

Setting up the Facebook Fundraiser was so easy. The whole family have been extremely touched by everyone’s support and generosity. We can’t believe that we have raised £1,742.50 for this great cause in such a short time

Connor Diplock

From all of us here at Spinal Research, thank you so much for your support and being a part of this community.