People affected by paralysis could enjoy more independence, betterhealth and a higher quality of life thanks to an innovative systemdesigned to improve fitness and increase arm strength.
It uses electrical signals to stimulate movement in arm muscleswhere function has been lost, making it possible to work anarm-exercise machine (similar to an exercise bike but worked by thearms).
This enables people with paralysis to enjoy the healthbenefits of regular work-outs. For those with some function in theirarms, it also helps them become strong enough to perform moreactivities unaided (wheelchair propulsion, moving from wheelchair tobed/bath, washing and eating etc). Aimed at people with injuries to thespinal cord, the system may be able to help those with paralysis causedby strokes or head injuries too.
This breakthrough is the result of a collaborative projectundertaken by University of Glasgow engineers and Glasgow's QueenElizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit with funding from theEngineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). A companyis now commercialising the research with a view to a product launch inthe coming months. The project team is also producing a video withEPSRC support to raise awareness of its work among people withparalysis and the healthcare community.
Using electrodes placed on the skin, small pulses ofelectricity are delivered to the nerves serving the biceps and triceps,replacing signals from the brain that can no longer reach the nerves.Controlled from a computer, the signals' timing and strength can beadjusted to suit individual needs, eg when signs of muscle fatiguebecome apparent. The arm-exercise machine is linked into the computersystem, enabling the effort needed to turn the machine to be adjusted.
Tetraplegic Sean Roake was one of the volunteers who workedwith the project team during the research. His training programme,which consisted of three 20-30 minute sessions per week for severalmonths, resulted in a 450% increase in muscle strength and a 50%increase in cardiopulmonary fitness. He says: "Everyday activities suchas wheelchair-to-car transfers are so much easier now. I feel extremelypositive knowing that I've taken responsibility for improving my healthby exercising regularly using this system".
Sylvie Coupaud, Research Assistant on the project and now aclinical scientist at the Spinal Injuries Unit, says: "By workingclosely with consultants at the unit, we identified the need for newexercise options in spinal cord injury. The technology we developed mayoffer a useful rehabilitation and home exercise tool for some peoplewith tetraplegia".
The project 'Development of Systems for Tetraplegic Arm Crankingusing Functional Electrical Stimulation' lasted two and a half yearsand received just over £122,000 of EPSRC funding.
The study investigated the feasibility of using functionalelectrical stimulation (FES) to deliver low-level pulses of electricalcurrent to paralysed upper arm muscles and so enable arm exercise to beundertaken, provided that the relevant nerves are not damaged. FES waspreviously developed by the University of Glasgow with EPSRC support. Asuccessful FES network bringing together groups from academia andindustry has also been established.
A further EPSRC-funded project at the University of Glasgow iscurrently assessing the potential health benefits of applying FEStechnology to leg exercise.
Regular exercise can help people with paralysis reduce the riskof developing cardiovascular and other diseases associated withinactive lifestyles.
The video currently in production, 'Engineering Research forSpinal Cord Injury', is being developed in collaboration with theSpinal Injuries Association and Spinal Injuries Scotland. Due to bereleased in late autumn/early winter, it will highlight the benefits ofresearch being carried out on the development of systems that use FESto restore function to paralysed muscle. The video includes a sectionon the research described in this press release. In addition to a fulllength version, two shorter versions of the video will be producedaimed specifically at (i) people with spinal cord injuries and (ii) thehealthcare community.
Tetraplegia is the inability to move one's arms and legs.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and thephysical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year inresearch and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the nextgeneration of technological change. The areas covered range frominformation technology to structural engineering, and mathematics tomaterials science. This research forms the basis for future economicdevelopment in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyleand culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of scienceand engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils withresponsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils workcollectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/
Materials provided by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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