Recovery of Function in Major Spinal Cord Injury Using Epidural Stimulation

January 22, 2016, Webb 1100

Joel Burdick

Caltech, Mechanical Engineering, Control & Dynamical Systems


Approximately 1,250,000 people in the U.S. suffer from spinal cord injury (SCI), with 400,000 confined to wheel chairs. Not only do the injured lose the ability to stand and walk (and sometimes move their arms), they suffer from additional injury-induced complications including loss of bladder and bowel control, decreased cardiovascular and pulmonary health, inability to regulate body temperature, and loss of muscle strength and bone density. The totality of the injury and its secondary dysfunctions makes daily activities of living a challenge. Because the median age of SCI in the U.S. is 28 years; SCI individuals require an additional $2.4-$4.0 million in healthcare costs over their lifetimes. A team of researchers at Caltech, UCLA, and Univ. of Louisville have been collaborating for several years to develop new technologies and new therapies for motor complete SCI patients—those who have lost motor control below the level of their injury. The centerpiece of this approach is a multi-electrode array which is implanted over the lumbosacral spinal cord in the epidural space between the dura and the interior of the vertebral canal. This talk will describe the basic technology behind multi-electrode epidural stimulation. When this technology is coupled with locomotor training (and drug therapy when possible), our preliminary human studies have shown that SCI patients receiving this therapy cannot only stand independently and make some voluntary movements (after being in a wheel chair for over 3 years), but more importantly, can expect to make significant gains in cardiovascular health, muscle tone, as well as improved autonomic function such as bladder, bowel, blood pressure, and temperature regulation. After reviewing these first efforts, current research in electrophysical modeling of the epidural stimulation process, new machine algorithms for automated tuning of the stimuli parameters, and the interface of this technology with robotic devices will be reviewed.

Speaker's Bio

Joel Burdick received his undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering and chemistry from Duke University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. He has been with the department of Mechanical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology since May 1988, where he has been the recipient of the NSF Presidential Young Investigator award, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award, and the Feynman fellowship. He has been a finalist for the best paper award for the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in 1993, 1999, 2000, and 2005. He was appointed an IEEE Robotics Society Distinguished Lecturer in 2003, and received the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough award in 2011. Prof. Burdick’s research interests lie mainly in the areas of robotics, kinematics, and mechanical systems. Current research interests include sensor based robot motion planning, multi-fingered robotic hand manipulation, and rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries.