TR&D Project 1: Guiding Beneficial Plasticity

We have developed technology and protocols for operant conditioning of spinal-level reflexes; and we have shown that this conditioning changes spinal cord neurons and synapses anatomically and physiologically. Furthermore, we have shown that these protocols can be used in both animals and humans to improve behaviors such as locomotion that have been impaired by spinal cord injury or peripheral nerve injury. By targeting specific neuronal pathways, these operant conditioning protocols can address each individual’s particular deficits. They can thereby complement standard therapies for spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular disorders and enhance the restoration of important motor functions such as locomotion. Thus, they provide a unique and important new approach to neurorehabilitation.

The overall goals of this TR&D Project are to increase the therapeutic potential of operant conditioning protocols and to enable their widespread clinical dissemination. In accord with these goals, the first specific aim is to develop new conditioning protocols that can modify other CNS pathways and can target modifications to specific phases of dynamic behaviors such as locomotion; and the second aim is to develop a robust easy-to- use operant conditioning system suitable for widespread use by clinicians and scientists (and, with future development, for independent home use by patients). Part of the first aim and all of the second aim are in close collaboration with Dr. Aiko Thompson’s NIH-funded clinical research group at Helen Hayes Hospital/Columbia University.

Together, these aims will further develop operant conditioning of CNS pathways as a major new therapeutic technology and enable its widespread dissemination for both basic research and clinical applications that can significantly enhance the success of neurorehabilitation for spinal cord injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy, and other disorders.

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