You are here: Connections Spring 2022
Read our latest newsletter to find out about:
- Investigating Spinal Circuits with Professor Rob Brownstone
- Spinal Stimulation
- How Science Becomes Medicine
- Fantastic Fundraisers
- Meet the Team
- Thanking our Supporters
- Remembering 'Mac'
Read here or through our online Digital Magazine Viewer by clicking the button below
Investigating Spinal Circuits
We caught up with our Trustee Professor Rob Brownstone about his research background and his recent work looking at spinal cord circuits.
Can you tell us about your background?
I took a neuroscience course at university in the ‘70s and was hooked. I went on to complete a medical degree, a PhD and a post-doc in neurophysiology.
My clinical speciality is functional neurosurgery, particularly focusing on impaired movement in neurological diseases like motor neurone disease and spinal cord injury (SCI).
How does brain and spinal cord circuitry work?
Consider picking up a cup of tea: higher centres of the brain are involved in the intention to move the hand and selecting the movement required to pick up the cup. A lower centre of the brain called the ‘brainstem’ sorts the movement command. It communicates with the spinal cord, which organises these signals to instruct muscles. Receptors in the limbs provide feedback to ensure the correct strength and coordination is applied – all these actions are controlled by different circuits.
How are these circuits affected in SCI
Some circuits are damaged. Others lose inputs from the brain, and may ‘rewire’ in response. One goal in treating movement disability after SCI is to restore the function of circuits that remain. Our spinal cord also controls autonomic functions, like blood pressure. These are things our body controls without thinking and we still don’t have a complete understanding of how these circuits fit together.
Autonomic dysreflexia, a potentially lethal spike in blood pressure in people with high level SCI, is an example of how serious dysfunction of these circuits can be. We are looking to find out if we can alter the properties of the cells in those circuits and prevent them being hyperactive.
What is your view on the potential of research into SCI
The future is bright but complicated. Returning full function following spinal cord damage remains difficult. However, we’re seeing very promising results combining treadmill training with electrical stimulation. Establishing the best ways to combine treatments like this is the way forward. Progress is incremental but it is happening.
What is your role in Spinal Research?
I was approached by Spinal Research and joined as a trustee in 2021. I wanted to know what else I could do to enhance spinal research and felt this would be a good way to help the community make advances.
What do you enjoy doing away from university?
I enjoy long multi-day hikes, just getting out in nature. We’ve been hiking in Scotland as well as Italy lately. I’ve also been doing a bit of bike riding in the New Forest which I love.
What are your plans for 2022?
Lots! I will be back in Canada for my daughter’s wedding. I’m also hoping to get back into scientific meetings in person again.
Rob’s Message for the SCI community:
The world of science is changing. There is far greater collaboration nowadays as we’re realising you need expertise from many areas to solve difficult problems. This is absolutely key for SCI.
We have a lot of researchers who are interested and have expertise in addressing the problem of SCI. There is a lot of momentum to make some really important discoveries.
Taking a closer look at promising spinal stimulation therapies.
You may have seen recently, on the BBC and elsewhere, a number of stories related to studies using spinal stimulation or “neuromodulation” as a potential treatment for spinal cord injury (SCI). We look at some of the key questions, and potential opportunities arising from this type of therapy for paralysis.
What is neuromodulation?
Neuromodulation describes targeted, programmed stimulation in areas of the body that modify the activity of nerves. Recent studies have focused on delivering electrical stimulation to different parts of the spinal cord, in conjunction with a tailored physical rehabilitation regime.
How does it work?
A spinal cord injury disrupts the normal communication pathways between the brain and the cord, with “functions” like movement and sensation affected below the site of the injury.
Neuromodulation boosts nerve signals to “awaken” dormant pathways which may still be intact, in order to restore or improve these functions.
How is the electrical stimulation delivered?
Currently there are two methods in which the electrical stimulation is delivered. This can be done using an implantable device, with a special membrane placed onto the spinal cord itself via a minimally invasive surgical procedure.
Electrical stimulation can also be delivered externally through electrodes which are placed on the skin near the area of the spinal cord responsible for delivering a specific movement or function. For example, to target restoration in hand and arm function these electrodes are placed on the neck. The stimulation is “turned on” using an external or handheld device.
What results have been seen?
Early-stage clinical trials and pilots have demonstrated a variety of outcomes ranging from improved movement and sensation to improvements in bladder and autonomic functions, such as blood pressure regulation.
There is also growing evidence to support that some measure of functional improvement is retained once the stimulation is removed or “switched off”.
How are Spinal Research hoping to develop this technology?
We have a number of spinal stimulation studies in our research portfolio starting or well underway. We look forward to being able to share the results of these clinical pilots with you in the future.
Additionally, we are partnering with ONWARD Medical who are playing a leading role in developing this technology. They are currently running an FDA-pivotal clinical trial with this externally delivered spinal stimulation technology with the objective of making it available in the clinic as soon as possible.
What are the next steps for this type of therapy?
At Spinal Research, as well as continuing to refine and improve this technology, we are also working with healthcare providers and regulators to prepare the clinical landscape for this type of therapeutic.
Accelerating delivery of these life changing therapies will take effort, coordination and - critically - funding.
How can I find out more?
You can find more about this area of study through the research section of our website spinal-research.org/research, as well as onward.com.
For information relating to clinical trials and pilots, please visit scitrials.org.
Watch Tara's spinal stimulation video below
How Science Becomes Medicine
As we have seen most recently from the rollout of vaccines for Covid-19, developing and distributing new treatments involves a series of different stages and stakeholders.
Spinal Research plays a key role in a number of these stages - from supporting early discoveries to preparing treatments or devices for clinical trials. We also help bridge the gap between scientists, clinicians and industry to accelerate the delivery of meaningful treatments.
Our pipeline of research projects is only possible because of the funding and support we receive from amazing supporters like you. Despite lockdown restrictions, our Fantastic Fundraisers have been taking on all sorts of individual challenges in the name of research. Here are just a couple of stories!
Repping for Research
Pete Linnett was born with spina bifida, but that hasn’t stopped him becoming a four-times World’s Strongest Disabled Man, and a holder of the World Bench Press Champion title.
This spring (April 30) Pete is flexing his muscles for research, and is aiming to bench press 60 kg through 1000 reps across seven hours. This will be a mammoth total of 60,000 kg, or the equivalent of five double-decker buses lifted as part of one huge bench press challenge!
Last year, Pete completed a 100-mile handcycle from Leicester to Skegness. Buoyed from the success of that challenge, only two weeks later he completed a 6-hour long bench press challenge, raising over £5,000 across the two events.
Good luck from all at Spinal Research!
Support Pete’s efforts at: justgiving.com/fundraising/vince-sutton
Glyn’s Endurance Challenge
Andrew Williams, who goes by Glyn, completed a phenomenal month-long cycling challenge in March in honour of his son, Alex.
Alex suffered a complete C5-level spinal cord injury during a road traffic accident in 2001, passing away in 2009 from complications of his injury. This challenge marks 21 years since his injury.
Originally planning to cycle 700 miles on an exercise bike in his garage, Glyn ended up surpassing 1330 miles. In his final post, he wrote:
“I want to say a big thank you to all the people who have followed me, supported me, messaged me and shared my posts. You have helped to keep me going throughout this month, but more importantly we have raised awareness of Spinal Research.”
“To all the people who have donated, a special thank you to you. Your donation will go some way to helping the vital research that gives hope to people with a spinal cord injury that their quality of life can be improved. To everyone who has been affected by someone they know or love suffering a spinal cord injury, I hope and pray the future will bring you better times.”
Glyn raised over £1,000 for Spinal Research, far outdoing his original target of £300!
Support Glyn’s efforts at justgiving.com/fundraising/glyn-williams22
Meet the Team
Louisa McGinn: Director of Fundraising
Avid runner, reader and friend of felines, Louisa joins us from Comic Relief having worked in fundraising for 15 years.
Why is fundraising so important to a charity like Spinal Research?
Research into spinal cord injury is critically under-funded. We are only able to invest in such incredible, innovative work because of the generosity of our supporters.
What are you looking forward to in the role?
I see myself as a passionate and entrepreneurial fundraiser, and I’m hoping that those qualities will make a real difference – to the cause, for my colleagues, and for our supporters.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Running and reading – with the help of audiobooks I often manage to do both at once! I love to bake and spend the rest of my time having intense conversations with one of the four cats we have in the family.
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
Running marathons! I’ve done 11 since 2011, and have really missed them in the last couple of years. I’m planning on running the London Marathon this autumn to raise money for Spinal Research. It’s an incredible event - it feels like the whole city comes out to cheer you on!
Do you have a message for our supporters and how they can reach you?
Thank you! I have so much admiration for people who choose to support our cause. If you, or anyone you know, would like to join me and take part in a running event for us, we would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
Knights Tackle Paralysis
Injured in a mountain biking accident at the age of 14, Gavin Wilson is working with the York City Knights to raise money for life-changing research.
Lifelong rugby league fan Gavin has teamed up with his local club to raise money and awareness for Spinal Research in a home fixture against local rivals Halifax Panthers on 22nd May.
Fundraising activities include a half-time dropkick challenge, match day auctions, and the chance to purchase a special Spinal Research branded rugby shirt.
The occasion provides an opportunity for Gavin to bring together two of his passions, as he explains:
“Despite my accident, I’ve been able to live life to the full in terms of working, travelling and even getting married recently. However, I’m determined to try and help change the outcomes for people like me especially those injured at an early age.
Spinal Research are a fantastic charity, and it’s exciting to see some of the new therapies being developed which may really change people’s lives in the next few years.
It’s great to be able to team up with the York City Knights to raise awareness of Spinal Research, especially within the rugby community.” said Gavin.
Tickets for the match and other fundraising activities are available through the York City Knights website: yorkcityknights.com
Special thanks to Gavin and everyone at York City Knights from the Spinal Research team.
If you have a passion for rugby, you could help raise funds and awareness through our Tackling Paralysis Campaign. Please visit spinal-research.org/rugby
Dates for your Diary
Some activities to look out for in 2022
13th May 2022: Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day (SCIAD)
10th July 2022: Asics 10k
11th September 2022: Great North Run
25th September 2022: Berlin Marathon
2nd October 2022: London Marathon
9th October 2022: Royal Parks Half
Get involved! You could help raise funds for research. Just visit: spinal-research.org/running-events
Last year saw the sad passing of Professor Steve McMahon (Mac), who died peacefully at home with his family on the 9th of October.
Known informally as Mac, he was a much loved and respected colleague, mentor and friend to many in the research community. He was also a long-time and passionate supporter of the International Spinal Research Trust, serving on our scientific committee, helping shape the Trust’s Research strategy for decades, and mentoring some of our talented PhD students.
Spinal Research would like to pay tribute to Mac, not only for his contribution in the field of research, but also for the energy, enthusiasm, passion and camaraderie he bought to his work.