People affected by paralysis could enjoy more independence, better health and a higher quality of life thanks to an innovative system designed to improve fitness and increase arm strength.
It uses electrical signals to stimulate movement in arm muscles where function has been lost, making it possible to work an arm-exercise machine (similar to an exercise bike but worked by the arms).
This enables people with paralysis to enjoy the health benefits of regular work-outs. For those with some function in their arms, it also helps them become strong enough to perform more activities unaided (wheelchair propulsion, moving from wheelchair to bed/bath, washing and eating etc). Aimed at people with injuries to the spinal cord, the system may be able to help those with paralysis caused by strokes or head injuries too.
This breakthrough is the result of a collaborative project undertaken by University of Glasgow engineers and Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). A company is now commercialising the research with a view to a product launch in the coming months. The project team is also producing a video with EPSRC support to raise awareness of its work among people with paralysis and the healthcare community.
Using electrodes placed on the skin, small pulses of electricity 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 be adjusted to suit individual needs, eg when signs of muscle fatigue become apparent. The arm-exercise machine is linked into the computer system, enabling the effort needed to turn the machine to be adjusted.
Tetraplegic Sean Roake was one of the volunteers who worked with the project team during the research. His training programme, which consisted of three 20-30 minute sessions per week for several months, resulted in a 450% increase in muscle strength and a 50% increase in cardiopulmonary fitness. He says: “Everyday activities such as wheelchair-to-car transfers are so much easier now. I feel extremely positive knowing that I’ve taken responsibility for improving my health by exercising regularly using this system”.
Sylvie Coupaud, Research Assistant on the project and now a clinical scientist at the Spinal Injuries Unit, says: “By working closely with consultants at the unit, we identified the need for new exercise options in spinal cord injury. The technology we developed may offer a useful Rehabilitation and home exercise tool for some people with Tetraplegia”.
The project ‘Development of Systems for Tetraplegic Arm Cranking using Functional Electrical Stimulation’ lasted two and a half years and received just over £122,000 of EPSRC funding.
The study investigated the feasibility of using functional electrical stimulation (FES) to deliver low-level pulses of electrical current to paralysed upper arm muscles and so enable arm exercise to be undertaken, provided that the relevant nerves are not damaged. FES was previously developed by the University of Glasgow with EPSRC support. A successful FES network bringing together groups from academia and industry has also been established.
A further EPSRC-funded project at the University of Glasgow is currently assessing the potential health benefits of applying FES technology to leg exercise.
Regular exercise can help people with paralysis reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular and other diseases associated with inactive lifestyles.
The video currently in production, ‘Engineering Research for Spinal Cord Injury’, is being developed in collaboration with the Spinal Injuries Association and Spinal Injuries Scotland. Due to be released in late autumn/early winter, it will highlight the benefits of research being carried out on the development of systems that use FES to restore function to paralysed muscle. The video includes a section on the research described in this press release. In addition to a full length version, two shorter versions of the video will be produced aimed specifically at (i) people with spinal cord injuries and (ii) the healthcare 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 the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/Pages/default.aspx
Professor Ken Hunt, University of Glasgow, tel: 141-330-2468/ 4043, e-mail: email@example.com (nb Sean Roake is also available for interview and can be contacted via Professor Hunt)
An image ‘arm exercise machine’.jpg is available from the EPSRC press office, contact: Lisa Green, (firstname.lastname@example.org), tel: 01793 442806. Suggested caption: ‘an exercise in fitness – Sean Roake demonstrates the new exercise system’
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council