For many years, cerebral palsy was considered a static condition with only limited opportunities to teach children to use their impaired arms or legs. Research supported by the National Institutes of Health over the past several decades, however, has led to a new understanding of the brain’s capacity for functional reorganization through focused, intensive training that taps into neuroplasticity processes intrinsic to the nerve cells of the brain throughout life, even after brain disease or injury. The directors of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute‘s Neuromotor Research Clinic located on Virginia Tech‘s Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke, VA, Dr. Sharon Ramey and Dr. Stephanie DeLuca, pioneered the use of a high-intensity therapeutic intervention that has allowed children with weakness on one side of their bodies — a hallmark of one form of cerebral palsy known as hemiparesis — to make large, rapid, and enduring gains in their everyday neuromotor skills.
High-intensity Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy
This therapy was first developed for adult stroke patients. The therapy is based on studies of the effects of prolonged disuse by parts of the brain that may occur after peripheral nerve injury or a stroke. Such disuse can lead to further weakening of the synaptic networks in the affected area of the brain and ongoing debilitation. Neurorehabilitation researchers have discovered, however, that an environment that compels the affected area of the brain to become active can lead to a strengthening of functional activity in the neural network. The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia has funding from the NIH to carry out a multi-site randomized controlled clinical research trial to evaluate the most effective parameters for increasing brain function in children with cerebral palsy.
Interestingly, the researchers have been finding benefits of the therapy beyond movement and posture, as the children have also developed a greater confidence and ability to have meaningful interactions. This ongoing research is an important example of how NIH-supported research built on basic discoveries is being translating into new, safe, and highly effective treatments for children who would otherwise be relegated to a life with limited options.