Getting A Grip On The Grasp

Dalhousie Medical School's Dr Rob Brownstone has given hope that people with impaired hand function will one day regain their independence. (Photo Courtesy of Dalhousie University)

Dalhousie Medical School’s Dr Rob Brownstone has given hope that people with impaired hand function will one day regain their independence. (Photo Courtesy of Dalhousie University)

When individuals with quadriplegia are surveyed on the function they would most like to recover, hand function is always rated at the top of the list – higher than walking or bowel control.

The mechanism that allows individuals to adjust their grasp to hold an item is frequently disrupted in spinal cord injuries.  In some cases an individual has no ability to grasp. In others they have an uncontrolled grasp where they can’t let go.

But there is new hope on the horizon.  Working in a collaborative environment, Dalhousie neurosurgeon Dr. Rob Brownstone recently identified the spinal cord circuit that controls the hand’s ability to grasp.

This breakthrough finding opens the door to the possibility of restoring function and independence to those who have been devastated by the loss of hand function.

“It’s possible that a neurotransmitter or other agent could be delivered to the spinal cord to correct the faulty circuit,” says Dr. Brownstone.  “It could be a complex strategy, but understanding is always the first step.”

Since 2008 the Nova Scotia Research & Innovation Trust (NSRIT) has provided $4.8 million for equipment in support of Dr. Brownstone’s work, and that of his colleagues, Drs. George Roberston, Vic Rafuse, and James Fawcett. Other funders include the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation, Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, and private donors, bringing the total investment in this research to $11.5 million.

This funding has not only allowed for the purchase of equipment and the leveraging of additional funds, it has brought new members into the research team. Since 2006, three faculty members have been recruited to Dalhousie Medical School as a direct result of this NSRIT infrastructure support, enhancing the training environment for researchers and strengthening collaborations with colleagues around the world.

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