Published: Monday, March 12, 2012, 11:32 AM Updated: Monday, March 12, 2012, 3:45 PM
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Christopher Neves describes himself as someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”
Since birth, the 30-year-old Charleston resident has coped with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects movement. Despite undergoing several surgeries, he uses a wheelchair to get around and has limited mobility in his arms.
But it hasn’t stopped Neves from being optimistic that he will one day walk and “make his mark on the world.” When he heard of a new study at the College of Staten Island (CSI) that may be able to help patients like himself with mobility, he quickly signed up.
“I want a better quality of life. I want to be more independent,” the CSI communications major said. “Some people would be happy to settle. I’m not happy settling.”
Dr. Zaghloul Ahmed, an associate professor in the college’s Department of Physical Therapy, created the PathMaker Neuromuscular Treatment System, a City University of New York (CUNY) trademarked therapy that uses electrical and magnetic stimulation to improve mobility in those with cerebral palsy, stroke and spinal cord injuries, all of which originate in the brain.
Dr. Ahmed previously conducted trials on mice using the same technology. The animal study, funded by the state Health Department and CUNY, featured 14 mice with spinal cord injuries; seven received the treatment and seven did not.
“The mice with the spinal cord injury could not walk as normal,” Dr. Ahmed said. “And after the treatment, they walked significantly better than the ones that didn’t get treated.”
He began his human trials – funded by a $250,000 BioAccelerate NYC Prize for research – in October. Dr. Ahmed explained that when a person moves, the brain generates a signal that it sends down the spinal cord and to the appropriate muscle. But when someone has a brain or spinal cord injury, the signal is weakened and the muscle doesn’t respond correctly.
His system aims to strengthen these neuromotor connections and make the muscles more responsive. During treatment sessions held three times a week for six weeks, Dr. Ahmed uses a device to send a magnetic pulse to the brain – similar to an MRI
– while simultaneously sending electrical signals to the desired muscle group and spinal cord.
“With precise timing, the signals will reach a junction at the spinal cord, where they all meet, and it seems to strengthen the connection between the brain, spinal cord and muscle,” he said.
“After we stop the signals and remove all these stimulators, the brain becomes effective itself and can generate muscle action, even with the injury,” he continued.
“It’s like teaching and strengthening the brain.”
During a recent session, Dr. Ahmed placed electrodes for the electrical stimulation along Neves’ right arm and spine. He then held a device to his head to deliver the painless magnetic pulse as he instructed Neves to move his arm in varying ways to teach the brain to efficiently move the muscles.
“My right arm was kind of tight and not as flexible. It was difficult to touch my thumb to my fingers,” Neves commented. “Now, I’m able to lift the arm up higher and my thumb moves better.”
This is evident in the dexterity and stamina tests Neves performs after their sessions. One has him placing pegs in a board. When he first started, it took more than three minutes to complete the task; now it takes a minute-and-a-half.
“(Dr. Ahmed’s) given me hope,” said Neves, who wants to have the therapy done on his left arm and legs. “I want to live a normal life and just be recognized as ‘Chris,’ not as someone with a disability.”
Timothy Poore of Brooklyn suffered a stroke in August, which, he said, “took out my whole left side.” Used to an independent lifestyle, he now uses a cane and has trouble with everyday tasks like turning pages in the newspaper, cutting food and brushing his teeth.
When the 59-year-old learned of the CSI study from one of his physical therapists, he decided to apply for it. Dr. Ahmed began by using the stimulation on his left arm, which Poore described as “just heavy” following the stroke. After a week, he noticed small improvements.
“I can move my hand up higher and was able to turn the newspaper pages with my left hand,” he reported. “That was something I wasn’t able to do since August.”
Dr. Ahmed has worked with four cerebral palsy and two stroke patients since his human study began, and has been approved for a total of 94 subjects.
He is looking for more participants; currently, the study is open to those ages 21 and up, although he hopes to include younger individuals in the near future. Additionally, Dr. Ahmed has applied to the Institutional Review Board at CUNY to start a spinal cord injury study later this year.
The studies, he said, have the potential to lead to a federal Food and Drug Administration trial, which could make his system more widely available.
“So far, the preliminary results have been nice,” Dr. Ahmed observed, noting, “Overall when we finish this, it can lead to a device that we can have in a clinic and everyone can apply it to their patients.”
Andrea Boyarsky is the Health editor for the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An electrifying study
Dr. Zaghloul Ahmed is conducting research utilizing the PathMaker Neuromuscular Treatment System, a therapy that uses electrical and magnetic stimulation to improve mobility in individuals with cerebral palsy or who have suffered a stroke.
Who can apply
The study is currently open to those age 21 and up.
Where it’s held
The College of Staten Island
2800 Victory Blvd., Willowbrook