Therapist applying TENS electrodes

USC researchers are studying the effect of external electrical stimulation on stroke patients. (Photo/iStock)


A potential new way for physical therapists to treat stroke survivors

USC researchers study the use of non-invasive electrical stimulation to improve mobility

January 05, 2017 John Hobbs

Could electricity help stroke survivors regain control of their legs and return to mobility?

It’s a question Assistant Professor James Finley and Professor Carolee Winstein, both from the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, hope to answer with a new study that could transform the way physical therapists help stroke survivors get back on their feet.

Finley and Winstein were recently awarded an Innovative Research Grant by the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) to study the use of non-invasive electrical stimulation to improve stroke survivors’ walking ability.

The study builds on neuromodulation, a promising treatment during which electrical or magnetic stimulation is applied outside the body to treat problems ranging from spinal cord injury to depression.

Finley’s research uses the treatment in a completely different way to treat stroke survivors, applying external non-invasive electrical stimulation directly to the spine, instead of the brain where it is most often used.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Sure the brain is important, but we don’t want to ignore the role of the spinal cord, particularly as it pertains to walking,’” Finley said.

If his proof-of-concept study is successful, it could offer physical therapists a new treatment to get stroke survivors back on their feet.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 795,000 people have a stroke in the United States each year — one every 40 seconds — with more than 600,000 surviving. Stroke is also the leading cause of serious long-term disability.

Crosstown collaborators

Finley’s study pairs the stroke rehabilitation expertise of the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy with spinal cord physiology expertise from the Edgerton Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at UCLA. The lab is led by V. Reggie Edgerton, who has been studying spinal cord physiology for more than 40 years.

Edgerton and his team have used electrical stimulation to treat patients with spinal cord injury. The researchers have published a number of studies that demonstrate significant changes in lower extremity function as a result of spinal cord electrical stimulation, Finley said.

We hope to be able to use electrical stimulation to actually show some short-term improvements in walking function or even control of the legs.

James Finley

“We hope to be able to use electrical stimulation the same way in stroke survivors to actually show some short-term improvements in walking function or even control of the legs,” he added.

The study will be conducted in two phases. First, researchers will focus on asymmetry, determining which segments of the spinal cord, when stimulated, impact which muscle activity patterns in each leg.

Secondly, Finley’s team hopes to find optimal stimulation locations and combinations to help improve lower extremity function.

“If we could, for some subset of stroke survivors, actually improve their walking function beyond what is currently possible with standard techniques, we could imagine this becoming an actual intervention,” Finley explained.

High risk, high reward

Finley joined the USC division in 2013. He is the director of the Locomotor Control Laboratory and has devoted himself to better understand how locomotion is controlled and adapted in both healthy and injured neuromuscular systems.

The junior faculty member has two active grants and three completed grants totaling nearly $900,000.

Winstein has been a professor at the USC division since 1990. She runs the Motor Behavior and Neurorehabilitation Lab, which is focused on motor control and learning.

The AHA/ASA grant aims to support high-risk, high-reward research that could ultimately lead to critical discoveries or major advancements in the field of cardiovascular and stroke research.