Lauren Kinne and another person testing out lab equipment.

CCPA Summer Series 2022: James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Hospital

By Lauren Kinne ’23

Funding Source: Gertrude Albert Heller Memorial Grant

This summer, I researched spinal cord injuries at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Hospital in the Bronx, New York. This was my second year working as a research coordinator in the Harel Lab. The lab studies novel neurorehabilitation practices to increase volitional motor control following incomplete spinal cord injury. This research revolves around the Hebbian neurological theory that describes how neurons that “fire together, wire together.” This model proposes that repeated stimulation to the brain or spinal cord can establish new neural pathways or increase efficient transmission of existing signaling through the spinal cord after injury. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transpinal and transcortical stimulation (TSCS) are techniques used to generate this stimulation and reinforce motor pathways.

This summer I continued to work closely with participants in a clinical setting. I learned about relevant technology used in the field of spinal cord injury research and rehabilitation, including the Hokoma Lokomat weight-supported treadmill. The weight-supported treadmill is a proven therapy that allows participants to complete the motion of walking using an exoskeleton that alleviates body weight. In our lab, we are investigating whether this training can be improved by transcutaneous spinal cord electrical stimulation. Prior to walking therapy, an electrode is placed on the participant’s lower back in the location of the central pattern generator, where rhythmic movements like walking, are regulated. This research follows exciting developments in the use of epidural, or implanted, electrodes after spinal cord injury. It has been observed that a small number of individuals have regained the ability to walk after direct electrical stimulation to the spinal cord. The Harel lab is interested in exploring how the application of electrical stimulus on top of the skin—a much safer and less invasive method—might affect participant outcomes.

In addition to my work in the research center, I shadowed my principal investigator, Dr. Noam Harel, in the hospital’s ALS clinic. I learned that ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a service-linked condition. ALS is observed in military populations at two-times the civilian rate. The reason for this association is unknown. This shadowing experience sparked my curiosity about the relationship between neurodegenerative disease and circadian rhythm disruption, which is also observed at disproportionate rates in active-duty military and veteran populations.

Thankfully, my curiosity was easily translated into a research question that can be explored on Haverford’s campus. Under the guidance and mentorship of biology professors Seol Hee Im and Robert Fairman, I was able to complete a year-long independent study investigating the effect of circadian rhythm disruption in early age on the onset and progression of ALS in the Drosophila melanogaster model organism. I will be continuing this research for my senior thesis this year.

If you would like to pursue off-campus research, I recommend casting a wide net and reaching out to investigators and labs who perform research that you are most interested in. Paid clinical internships can be hard to find. CCPA funding allowed me to pursue volunteer opportunities that were compatible with my educational interests and goals. Working at the Bronx VA hospital was an incredible experience that has extended beyond my summers to define and enrich my studies at Haverford.