NeuRA spinal cord injury centre

Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) has today opened Australia’s new Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre.

The Centre will house the latest cutting edge technology and accelerate Australia’s research into better treatment for those with a spinal cord injury.

At the Centre’s opening, it was announced NeuRA researchers will receive $6.4 million in NSW Government funding for projects aimed at providing better treatments for people with spinal cord injuries.

The Centre’s projects involve using the latest research breakthroughs, such as virtual reality and electrical stimulation to restore feeling, movement and function after a devastating injury.

NeuRA CEO Professor Peter Schofield AO said the Centre will advance treatment methods and offer new hope to those living with a spinal cord injury.

“NeuRA is at the forefront of spinal cord injury research in Australia. The Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre and these research projects will dramatically improve Australia’s understanding of how to best treat people living with these life-long injuries,” he said.

“NeuRA thanks the NSW Government for its funding of NeuRA’s spinal cord research projects. We also are deeply grateful for the tireless advocacy of SpinalCure Australia who have helped fund the new Centre as part of their mission to improve the quality of life for people with a spinal cord injury.”

Spinal Cord Injury Research Projects funded by the NSW Government include:

  1. Therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia to restore voluntary function after spinal cord injury

project led by Senior Principal Research Scientist, Professor Jane Butler, received $1.5 million to advance the effectiveness of therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia (AIH), which may help people to improve their breathing and recover movement after a spinal cord injury.

Professor Butler will study how this therapy affects people with a spinal cord injury to optimise treatment and better predict those who may benefit most from AIH.

“Therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia is a cutting-edge treatment that has the potential to restore function to muscles paralysed due to a spinal cord injury by changing the way the brain and spinal cord connect,” she said.

“Our aim is to identify the best way to apply this treatment clinically in a targeted and tailored manner for people who have chronic and acute spinal cord injuries to improve their quality of life.”

  1. Electrical abdominal stimulation to improve breathing and bowel function

More than half of the those who experience a spinal cord injury each year experience a condition known as tetraplegia, which often results in them requiring a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe, as well as respiratory and bowel complications.

Senior Research Scientist Dr Euan McCaughey will receive $2.4 million to undertake a program of work evaluating whether electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles can reduce the length of time people with a spinal cord injury require the assistance of a mechanical ventilator, and whether this technology can reduce respiratory complications and improve bowel function.

“People with a spinal cord injury are up to 150 times more likely to get pneumonia than the general public and over half of them have bowel problems” Dr McCaughey said.

“This program of work greatly expands our previous research and could significantly improve the lives of those living with a spinal cord injury,” he said.

  1. Virtual reality treatment to restore touch and feeling in people with paraplegia

Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin from NeuRA and UNSW School of Psychology will receive $2.5 million from NSW Health for her RESTORE Project.

This project uses virtual reality in a way it has never been used before.

A/Prof Gustin’s team will develop and test the world’s first immersive virtual reality interface that simultaneously enhances surviving spinal nerve fibres and touch signals in the brain in an effort to help people regain a sense of touch and feeling throughout their body.

This project builds on a recent discovery by her team that 50 per cent of individuals with complete spinal cord injury still have surviving spinal somatosensory nerve fibres. Contrary to previous belief, these findings showed that the brain is still receiving messages from areas of the body where the sense of feeling or touch has been lost.

“It’s very exciting that we can explore how virtual reality can be used to help people regain feeling in their limbs. The outcomes of our research could lead to a cultural and scientific shift in terms of how we treat people with spinal cord injuries, and what they can expect from life after experiencing such a devastating injury,” A/Prof Gustin said.

Additional collaboration with UTS: New strategies to control urinary tract infections
NeuRA Research Fellow and Senior Staff Specialist at the Prince of Wales Hospital Spinal Unit, Dr Bonne Lee, is a co-investigator on a collaborative grant led by A/Prof Diane McDougald from the ithree institute of The University of Technology Sydney (A/Prof Diane McDougald and Prof Iain Duggin) and the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, (A/Prof Scott Rice) has received $2 million.

The team will be investigating metagenomics-based diagnostics to look at new strategies to control urinary tract infections in people with a spinal cord injury.

“Our team is looking at new diagnostic techniques that may help relieve the burden of catheterisation in people with spinal cord injury. Long-term, this work aims to produce better diagnostic decisions in the treatment of urinary tract infections and to reduce antibiotic use,” Dr Lee said.

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