Promising Research to Restore Hand Function at UCLA

Daniel Lu, MD, and Reggie Edgerton, MD, recently received a five-year grant to explore new therapies for patients with spinal cord injuries from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Dr. Lu and Dr. Edgerton are researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and clinicians at the UCLA Spine Center.

“A majority of spinal cord patients have compromised hand function which is often cited as having the highest impact of all lost functions after injury by those living with spinal cord injury,” says Dr. Lu. “Thus, the NIH grant is funded to study hand function after severe cervical spinal cord injury.”

The first step is to explore therapeutic techniques in a rat animal model to see how they react to the cervical spinal cord injury treatment and then translate those findings into a pilot clinical study. Dr. Lu and his team are focused on two different treatments:

Restoring function to paralyzed patients with electrical impulses to stimulate dormant pathways within the spinal cord. Dr. Lu is testing stimulation at various power levels, rates and locations to find the most effective dosage and application; each use is customized to individual patients and injuries.

Using drugs — particularly off-label serotonergic agonists — to improve function. The drugs are designed to increase serotonin levels within the spinal cord, which the researchers hope will open communication pathways that cells ordinarily wouldn’t recognize and could restore some hand functionality and control.


Edgerton recently had this to say: “We are very encouraged. We saw more than we expected, and more than we had hoped for. Our preliminary data suggest that the cervical spinal cord can be neuro-modulated or electrically epidurally stimulated, similar to what has been seen in the lower spinal cord. Our results were better than we expected; we saw improvement in function in including hand grip strength but also the ability to control that movement.” Edgerton is restricted by research protocol to say anything more, but watch for a major paper report here on the blog about the first five humans in the hand function trial.

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