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Shepherd Center Establishing SCI Research Laboratory

ATLANTA - (March 9, 2009) - Shepherd Center is expanding its spinal cord injury research program with the addition of a new human studies laboratory called the Spinal Cord Injury Lab. Shepherd Center’s director of spinal cord injury (SCI) research, Dr. Keith Tansey, M.D., Ph.D., will lead the lab with associate SCI research director Debbie Backus, PT, Ph.D.

The lab, known as SCIL, will focus specifically on neural plasticity – the ability of the neurons in the nervous system to develop new connections and “learn” new functions – and functional recovery after patients receive treatment for SCI.

“Shepherd Center has a long tradition of carrying out SCI research as part of its federal designation as a Spinal Cord Injury Model System (SCIMS),” Dr. Tansey said. “Our program focuses on improving care for SCI patients, as well as participation in clinical trials of therapeutic interventions.”

SCIL will add to these efforts with more basic, pre-clinical human research aimed at understanding the neural mechanisms of functional recovery and how they can be enhanced by new therapeutic approaches. The lab will combine methods that examine muscle activation patterns and reflex function with robotic technology that can impose various experimental conditions, measure mechanical features of movements, and train stepping or reaching and grasping movements.

Also, the lab will examine changes in how the autonomic nervous system functions after SCI in response to different therapeutic interventions.SCIL has opened in its first home in the Shepherd Pain Institute in the Marcus-Woodruff Building at Shepherd Center. It will work to combine its new tools with devices already in clinical use or research, including the Lokomat robotic body-weight supported treadmill trainer and the Assisted Movement with Enhanced Sensation (AMES) device, which improves sensory feedback during upper-extremity therapy.

“Eventually, the lab will have a Lokomat dedicated to research, an Armin (an upper-extremity robot being developed by Hocoma, which also makes the Lokomat), and other novel therapy tools like the AMES device,” Dr. Tansey said. “It will be staffed by a full-time biomedical engineer and research physical therapist.”

In addition to Drs. Tansey and Backus, other clinicians at Shepherd Center will participate in research in the SCIL. The directors also plan to mentor medical students or residents, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from partner institutions in Atlanta, including Emory University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.

“SCIL will serve as a site where basic science discoveries made at these institutions can be tested in humans with SCI to more rapidly translate ideas from the research bench to bedside testing and applications,” Dr. Tansey said.

The lab has launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of $3 million to realize its full potential.

For information about participating in research at Shepherd Center, send an email to

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.