Spinal cord stimulation device to improve mobility

Olivia Samotus
PhD candidate
Western University
Graduate Student Award
Funded by The Lanka Charitable Foundation
$20,000 over 2 years
Investigating therapeutic and neurophysiological effects of spinal cord stimulation for treating gait impairments in advanced Parkinson’s disease patients

Shuffling, freezing in place and slowness can eventually force some people with Parkinson’s disease to use motorized scooters or wheelchairs or even keep them housebound.

Until now, treating these walking problems has been difficult – but a new approach at Western University is helping a small group of people regain their independence.

Olivia Samotus, a PhD student, is testing the use of an implantable battery that delivers electrical pulses to people’s spinal cords. The implant, which people can control themselves using a remote, activates areas of the brain that Parkinson’s disease has damaged.

“It’s kind of like a pacemaker,” Samotus explains. “There are a couple of electrodes implanted just above the spinal cord. It sends electrical current to stimulate (nerve) fibres and the spinal cord.”

Samotus’s supervisor, Dr. Mandar Jog, and his team have already demonstrated that this implant improved the walking abilities in a group of five people with Parkinson’s disease.

“We saw huge changes for up to six months,” Samotus says. “We saw drastic reductions in freezing of gait, people aren’t falling, and one person who was wheelchair bound now uses a walker.”

Now Samotus is testing different frequencies and durations of the electrical pulses with a larger group of 25 people, to determine which of the device’s programs are most effective for each patient. She’s using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain signals and determine which areas of the brain spinal cord stimulation changes. Samotus is also involved in a longer follow-up study with Jog to track the results of this treatment on the first five people involved in their original pilot study.

“Imagine having a patient who hasn’t been able to walk for several years …. And then being able to discover that we’re actually improving this patient’s life.”

If this device continues to work successfully on a larger group of people with walking difficulties caused by Parkinson’s disease, it could prove an effective treatment to restore independence and improve the quality of life of people living with this illness.

“Imagine having a patient who hasn’t been able to walk for several years …. And then being able to discover that we’re actually improving these patients’ lives,” Samotus says.

After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Samotus was drawn to neuroscience, and Parkinson’s research, because she’s fascinated by how much more there is to learn about the brain.

Although finding out what causes Parkinson’s is important, Samotus prefers focusing on how to help people with the disease right now. She loves the fact that spinal cord stimulation produces immediate, measurable results.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says.