New program for spinal injuries aims to expand care now, find cure in future
By Mitzi Baker
Graham Creasey (left) and Gary Steinberg (right) have started a spinal cord injury and repair program helping patients, like army veteran Sonia Alvarado, reclaim some abilities.
What could be harder than not being able to walk? Lots of other hardships can be as challenging, said Graham Creasey, MD. Not being able to lift a spoon to your mouth can be difficult, and there are others harder still.
Creasey wants to change that now that he's the medical director of a new program starting at the School of Medicine designed to improve the lives of those with spinal cord injuries.
"If you have broken your neck, most people assume that the most important priority is to walk again," said Creasey, acting professor of neurosurgery. Since he's worked with people paralyzed from spinal cord injuries, he's learned that other things can take precedence over walking: being able to cough to clear your lungs, being able to control when you have to use the bathroom and just being able to use your hands.
"If you can't use your legs, you can still get around in a wheelchair, but if you can't use your hands, it's hard to use anything," said Creasey.
The Spinal Cord Injury and Repair Program was the brainchild of Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, the Bernard and Ronnie Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor of Neurosurgery and the Neurosciences, who received approval for the program last summer. For the last decade or so, he has been interested in ways to restore the nervous system following injury, particularly after stroke. "But the spinal cord might be the first place we can achieve this goal in patients, since it is so much simpler than the brain," he said.
Steinberg wants the program to do something never done before: restore function to the spinal nerves following paralysis. "The ultimate goal is to achieve as close to a normal lifestyle as possible for people," he said.
Until that dream is realized, Creasey implements the many options that can improve the lives of paralyzed people. In particular, he advocates for the use of electrical stimulation devices that can provide the missing signals from damaged nerves to muscles. Creasey has pioneered the use of such devices, which he called "neural prostheses."