CALGARY – A paralyzed doctor in Alberta went from having surgery to being a test subject in a research study that could help people with spinal cord injuries.
Dr. Richi Gill of Calgary broke his neck three years ago in a freak accident on a boogie board while on a family vacation in Hawaii.
He later traveled to Thailand to have two implants placed in his lower back for epidural stimulation. They stimulate the nerves identified by surgeons and therapists, enable him to take supported steps and regulate his blood pressure.
But low blood pressure is still a problem.
Aaron Phillips of the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine and Gregoire Courtine of the Federal Institute of Technology have developed another device that shows that spinal cord stimulators can bypass the body’s autonomic regulatory system and control blood pressure without medication.
The results of their investigation into the device known as the closed-loop neuroprosthetic communication system were published in the science journal Nature on Wednesday.
Gill was the first to participate in the study.
“Instead of being a pacemaker for the heart, it’s kind of a pacemaker for the spine,” said Gill, 40, in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Gill, who has no movement or sensation under his neck but does use his arms, said his blood pressure was quite low first thing in the morning or later in the day.
“When that happens, your vision gets a little blurry, you feel a little uncomfortable, and you almost have to put your head in your lap or lie down to straighten things out and wait for things to improve,” he said.
“The medications I’ve been on helped, but they’re not perfect and take time to kick in.”
Gill said he used the new device for about an hour each day and it raised his blood pressure quickly. He no longer needs blood pressure medication.
“Now I can work and hang out with the kids all day,” he said.
Phillips said the study found the exact placement of the stimulator on the spine.
“Our device actually detects blood pressure and heartbeat, and regulates the amount of stimulation that is delivered to the circuits responsible for blood pressure in the spinal cord,” he said.
“Richi was a kind of human proof of concept. After years of work we wanted to see exactly if we could translate this into a human end-case.”
Phillips said the first clinical phase could start as early as April. If all goes well, the technology could be available in the next five years.
“We believe that really stable blood pressure will reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke in the long term. It’s a big risk factor. That’s actually the main killer of these people, heart disease and strokes. ”
Gill, who helped develop Calgary’s bariatric surgery program, realizes that he has become a human guinea pig in the world of neurological research.
“In my previous life, I was pretty much involved in research on the other side of things … not as a patient.
“But I’m happy if it can help advance some science.”
This Canadian press report was first published on January 27, 2021
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Bill Graveland, the Canadian press