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Victoria Times Colonist

A UVic Kinesiology professor hopes to redraft the recovery road map for survivors of strokes and spinal cord injuries.
Dr. Paul Zehr is at the forefront of research into the spinal circuits that control rhythmic movement such as walking. And if the science continues to bear out the theory, it could have positive effects for those who have suffered strokes or spinal cord problems.

timescolonistpicBY KIM WESTAD
Times Colonist staff

When a person has had a stroke or spinal cord injury, the communication between the brain and the spinal cord has been damaged. 

But Zehr said studies have shown that the way repetitive movement, such as walking, is controlled by the nervous system is very much dependent on the cells in the spinal cord.

“It turns out that a lot of the control involved in producing walking has to do with cells we find right in the spinal cord” Zehr added that the brain is still part of the process “but the spinal cord itself can do an awful lot of the work all by itself.

“What we’re trying to do is harness what the spinal cord by itself can do to try and make up as much as possible to make up for the lost input from the brain.”

Traditional rehabilitation has focused on trying to stimulate the affected area. For example, when a stroke survivor’s right foot has been affected, the treatment emphasis is often on stimulating the right foot.

However, Zehr will look at whether rehabilitation could be more effective by stimulating the opposite foot, with the idea that the spinal cord cells in rhythmic movements may compensate for what has been lost in the stroke or spinal cord injury.

“A lot of the reason for co-ordination loss is the way in which the spinal cord is working has been changed. But we can also change it back a little bit, we think, to a little more normal coordination within the spinal cord if we increase the feedback.”

Zehr likens it to a changing road map.

“We used to be able to just get on the highway and drive straight from A to B. Now, we’re saying you can still get to B, you just have to go through some in-between point and you get to B eventually – it’s just a different trip,” he said.

Research with stroke and spinal cord survivors is just underway at UVic, funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, as well as by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, and will likely take a few years.

“Stroke or spinal cord injuries haven’t really been explored in the way we’re trying to approach it,” Zehr said. “We’re mapping out the connections from the different parts of the body and how it affects activity.”

Even though results aren’t expected for several years, Ted Jennings was only too happy to volunteer for the research, though it likely won’t be of any help to him.

“I hope someone in the future will be helped,” the 56-year-old Oak Bay man said. Jennings suffered a stroke in April of 2002.

“I hope it saves someone some time on their recovery. As I’m finding out, time is very precious when you’re trying to recover.”