Patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries improved their mobility by learning how to calm hyperactive reflexes, according to a recently published study.

Researchers enrolled 13 participants who experienced spasticity and an impaired ability to walk due to incomplete spinal cord injuries. In the first 2 weeks of the study, participants received electrical stimulation to the calf muscle of their weaker leg while researchers recorded baseline measurements of the resulting reflex. During the next 10 weeks, nine participants viewed the size of their reflexes on a monitor and were encouraged by the researchers to suppress it during three training sessions per week. Four control group participants received stimulation but no feedback. Researchers measured walking speed over a distance of 10 meters and monitored gait symmetry with electronic shoe implants for all participants before and after training sessions.

Among the nine participants in the training group, six were able to suppress their reflexes. This resulted in a 59% average increase in walking speed and a more symmetrical gait. These gains were not seen in three participants who were unable to suppress their reflexes or in the control group, according to study results. About 85% of participants who were able to control their reflexes after several weeks of training also reported that they were noticing improvements in daily living activities.

“People tend to think of reflexes as fixed, but in reality, normal movement requires constant fine-tuning of reflexes by the brain,” Jonathan Wolpaw, MD, of the New York State Department of Health, the State University of New York in Albany and the department of neurology at Columbia University, stated. “Loss of that fine-tuning is an important part of the disability that comes with a spinal cord injury.”

For more information:

Thompson AK. J Neurosci. 2013;33:2365-2375.

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