For four decades, a group of neurologists now lead by Jonathan Wolpaw have entered the research lab at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center with one goal in mind: Understanding how the nervous system changes with disease and injuries so when something goes wrong, doctors would have a tool to fix it.
"It's a very exciting time both for us and in general in neuroscience, because it's become clear that there's a lot we can do that 30, 40 years ago we thought was impossible," said Wolpaw, a research neurologist. "When the nervous system was damaged, you were stuck with it and that was it. That's not the case."
What's changed that is a device that helps restore movement, enabling the nervous system to recover after severe injury, such as a stroke or a spinal cord injury.
"You can see that our participant has electrodes on the skin of his calf," Wolpaw said. "He also has a set of electrodes behind the knee. And what we're doing is recording muscle activity from the skin, and we're also periodically giving a very weak electrical stimulation, which is barely perceptible, but it produces a reflex."
In most participants, researchers have found the feedback they see on the screen encourages them to learn to make that reflex smaller, ultimately improving the ability to walk for stroke survivors like Scott Bennett.
"I've noticed, you know, for the last couple of months that, you know, my, you know, my arm is, you know, bouncing...creeping up as much when I walk. And I mean, I would have a tendency to drag my right foot, and I'm not doing that as much," said Bennett, a research participant.
With hundreds of scientists, volunteers and involvement from research facilities across the globe, their work has culminated to something that's expected to help millions of people.
Scott said he's proud to play even a small role in that.
"It is very important. There's a lot of people that, you know, could be helped with this...to live better lives," he said.
Within the next few years, it's expected to be translated into clinical use. In as little as five years, patients could use the technology at home with remote oversight through telemedicine.
"A patient could then have this therapy available every day," Wolpaw said. "It would be a lot more impactful. The results could be a lot better and it'd be a lot more loved, a lot less expensive and a lot more practical for widespread use."