Q&A with Carrie Peterson, Ph.D.

Five things you should know about rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injury

Improving rehabilitation for individuals with spinal cord injury is a major research focus area of Carrie Peterson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

1. What are you working on right now?

Our current focus is to develop rehabilitation to improve and preserve upper limb function for individuals with spinal cord injury. Individuals with tetraplegia suffer from paralysis of the lower limbs and partial paralysis of the upper limbs. That means they rely on their upper limbs for essentially all activities of daily living. One goal is to improve their residual upper limb function through the development of rehabilitation. A second goal is to preserve function by identifying movement strategies that minimize injurious mechanical loading of the limbs.

2. What do you hope to achieve with this research?

We hope to promote lasting changes in the nervous system—i.e., neuroplasticity, that result in improved function. We know that the nervous system is capable of reorganization, even in chronic tetraplegia. Spared neural axons can circumnavigate an injury, so we are developing neuromodulation techniques that can best promote that. Towards preserving function, we hope to provide clinical guidelines for wheelchair propulsion that prevent shoulder pain in children and adults.

3. How will this make a difference?

The better and longer that individuals with tetraplegia can use their upper limbs, the greater independence they can have in their lives. I was attracted to this area by both a realization that engineering can help make a difference in human health, and fascination with the neuro-musculoskeletal system. Even small improvements in upper limb function can have a huge impact on someone’s quality of life.

4. Tell us how you are investigating this.

Neuromodulation techniques we use include non-invasive brain and muscle stimulation. On their own, these approaches have limited potential, so the key seems to be pairing them with physical training. We collaborate with researchers who collect motion capture and other biomechanical data from wheelchair users in order to model and simulate movement. From our simulations, we can estimate joint contact forces during movement. We cannot record contact forces directly from human subjects.

5. Are other VCU faculty members or students involved?

Research is very much a collaborative effort. Our lab consists of several outstanding VCU graduate and undergraduate students in biomedical engineering. We also work with faculty and students in mechanical engineering, physical therapy and physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Fun fact: Beginning two years ago, I partake in a hip hop dance class once a week that I have no business being in considering my lack of training in dance. Apparently I have mastered “dance like no one is watching.”