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January 26, 2021

Introducing the New Human Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility for Health, Balance, and Motor Control in the Spinal Cord Research Centre at the University of Manitoba

By Dr. Kristine Cowley

It’s early November and 2020 has been nothing as expected. With a very generous donation from the Will to Win, and support from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Research Manitoba, we were to officially
open our newly developed “Human Spinal Cord Injury Research Facility for Health, Balance and Motor Control” at the Spinal Cord Research Centre in December 2019. It became fully functional at that time and we had received ethics and funding to begin some spinal cord injury research. We were to begin some pilot research testing


of different methods for directly stimulating the spinal cord to increase function. We were set to begin some exercise-based research in people with tetraplegia. We were also set to design and develop a more flexible safety restraint system for wheelchairs so that we could better assess and research patterns of wheeled mobility using our wheelchair-accessible treadmills. Then of course we started hearing about this virus and well, COVID-19 happened, and we essentially had to shut down all human research. We had been recently gearing back up again but with the new surge in COVID in Manitoba, we will have to continue to delay our ‘grand opening’.


In the meantime, I wanted to share some photos of the equipment we have in place and what it will allow us to do.
We have a wheelchair treadmill capable of measuring load in everyday and racing wheelchairs and hand-cycles. We have a balance assessment treadmill system that is also wheelchair accessible, can measure load, and which has a video recording system. Both are equipped with the ability to control the treadmills to assess balance, with sudden starts and stops that can be programmed in to the software that controls each treadmill. You will notice that one of the systems (below) also has a visual screen that allows us to assess the role of visual stimuli in balance and movement as well. We can use this treadmill for people with incomplete SCI who are able to walk, as well as people using everyday
wheelchairs. The ramp for the treadmill/balance assessment suite
on the left is not shown. Our wheelchair-accessible scale is shown (above) in front of the treadmill (being stepped on by the person in the foreground).
We can monitor muscle activity using wireless and wired muscle sensors (EMGs) and we can record movements using video camera-based recording of position markers on each study participant. We are not showing the stimulation equipment, but one of our research goals is to identify how non-invasive spinal stimulation during different movements and during exercise can improve function after SCI. We have specially adapted seated rowers that use electrical stimulation of leg


muscles combined with upper arm rowing equipment, shown below. There is good potential for using this form of exercise as a way to keep paralyzed leg muscles active while allowing people with SCI to perform upper body voluntary exercise. Depending on the person’s level of injury, it is quite likely that this form of exercise will allow for much greater exercise ‘stress’ than can be achieved with only voluntary upper


body activity or electrical leg stimulation-based activity alone. We have a height-adjustable arm ergometer that allows us to test a variety of exercise interventions in order to find strategies that will allow people to exercise longer and at higher intensities so they can increase the likelihood of achieving a health benefit, either in terms of weekly calories burned with exercise or in terms of training effects in different systems (e.g. cardiovascular system).
Overall, this combination of equipment and stimulation methods exists at only a handful of sites in North America, and when we can get back in the lab and back to ‘normal’ we will be very excited to begin new avenues of research that will hopefully improve the health and quality of life of Manitobans with SCI.
If you have any questions about this article, or spinal cord injury
research generally, feel free to contact me at Kristine.Cowley@umanitoba.ca .

SCI Manitoba would like to congratulate Dr. Kristine Cowley on her recent appointment to Director of the Spinal Cord Research Centre at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Cowley is an Assistant Professor and long-standing member of the SCRC. She is very knowledgeable on the history of the SCRC and has played an integral role in its direction both research and operation wise. Dr. Cowley spearheaded the development and implementation of the unique Human Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre for Health, Balance and Motor Control laboratory located at the Spinal Cord Research Centre in the Department of Physiology & Pathophysiology at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Manitoba.