MURFREESBORO — For three years, Middle Tennessee State University’s exercise science experts have worked wonders with people who suffer from incomplete spinal cord injuries.
Now the National Institutes of Health is giving them the opportunity to perform a comprehensive study that could change the way health professions treat these patients, who retain some preservation of sensation or motor function at the lowest segment of the spinal cord.
With a $388,894 grant from the federal agency, Drs. Don Morgan and Sandy Stevens will recruit, test and follow up with clients suitable for walking in MTSU’s underwater treadmill laboratory beginning in fall 2014.
Thirty participants, some of whom will be part of a control group, will help the scientists determine the impact of underwater treadmill training on partially paralyzed individuals’ mobility, health and quality of life.
“We can improve their leg strength,” said Morgan, a professor of exercise science. “We can improve their balance. We can reduce the need for external help when they walk.”
The primary goals are to improve the participants’ mobility, reduce physical inactivity, increase participation in life activities and improve aerobic fitness.
Over a 16-week period, the participants’ gait patterns will be tracked. Not only will they be videotaped, but they will have electrodes attached to their bodies. These electrodes will enable researchers to determine if the activity and coordination of their leg muscles change after the aquatic walking program.
Dr. Brian Hinote, an associate professor of sociology, will evaluate the participants’ lifestyles both before and after the treadmill trials.
“We want to assess the degree to which the people are able to carry on the activities of their daily lives both at home and in their communities,” Hinote said.
Morgan’s earlier research focused on children with cerebral palsy. The results were promising enough to lead him to believe it could work for other populations, including diabetics and stroke victims.
“It could certainly be a complementary therapeutic technique that, for some could really spell the difference between being able to be mobile on land instead of being relegated primarily to a wheelchair or a walker,” Morgan said.
Stevens, an assistant professor of exercise science, works most directly with the clients, transferring them safely into the treadmill, adjusting the water temperature and adjusting the height of the tank for the armrests. She knows that while full mobility might not be possible, mobility can be increased.
“It really is possible to restore that level of independent functioning, and a lot of it can be done through fairly low-tech interventions that could potentially be done within a community,” Stevens said.
Part of the NIH funding will pay undergraduate and graduate students for assisting with the study. It’s a move that will better prepare MTSU graduates for jobs in the health professions and improve the university’s research profile.
Morgan and Stevens will speak directly to students during fall classes to select the lucky few, and they expect the humanitarian aspect of the work to be a major selling point.
“You have a chance to impact the lives of people in a positive way, and that is incredibly fulfilling,” Morgan said.
The NIH-funded study is noteworthy for a university not connected to a college of medicine or a teaching hospital. Yet Morgan is encouraged by the agency’s approval of MTSU’s proposal.
“We’re doing work here at MTSU that, as far as I know, is not being done anywhere else in the world at this level,” said Morgan.