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Each week, several research subjects who have had a stroke tie up their laces and get on the treadmill or the stationary bicycle inside the Patricia Leahy Memorial Research Laboratory to begin raising their heart rate to begin their circuit training session. The subjects aren’t just working up a sweat, the exercises they are completing are working to reverse the debilitating paralysis and other effects of stroke.
These subjects are participating in cutting edge research that takes traditional physical therapy up a notch. Subjects in this project work at exercise stations challenging the upper extremity, lower extremity, and balance. While they exercise at a moderate intensity, they are also challenged to perform taxing cognitive tasks.
“Typically when a patient finishes a physical therapy program, they are given a home exercise program with really minimal activity. Instead, we are telling them they have to do things much more intensely, much faster, and they should be sweating,” said Gregory Thielman, PT, MSPT, EdD, director of the lab and professor of physical therapy.
In order to monitor the impact of the exercise program, researchers are measuring the levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is responsible for motor learning and brain neuroplasticity. The levels of BDNF are lower in people with stroke and fortunately, exercise may improve levels and allow people with stroke to get much better.
This interdisciplinary research project brings together professors who are experts in the fields of physical therapy, psychology, and biology to better examine the impacts of BDNF from all angles. The research team, which consists of Margie Roos PT, DPT, PhD; Lora Packel, PhD, MSPT; Dr. Thielman; Melissa Lesser, PT, DPT; Stephen Moelter, PhD; and Zachary Klase, PhD, are studying how people with stroke improve in cognition, depression, and activity with this innovative approach to physical therapy.
“By improving a stroke patient’s function, we can increase their independence and reduce the burden of care and improve quality of life,” said Dr. Thielman, who has performed research training investigations with stroke patients for over 15 years.
This research, which has been ongoing for more than two years, has brought in 15 different subjects to complete the 12-week program.
The research also presents an opportunity for both graduate and undergraduate physical therapy students to get hands-on experience in the lab and working with patients.
“Our undergraduate students are learning to work directly with patients, about the kind of support they need and how to effectively guard the patients so that they are able to walk around and perform the exercises,” said Dr. Thielman. “These are things most students wouldn’t learn until they are in the professional phase of the program.”
Leigh Kissinger DPT’21 said she feels like she has an advantage over her classmates who haven’t had an opportunity to work directly with patients in the lab.
“The fact that I’m able to work with patients so early in my academic career allows me to become more comfortable interacting with them. And I’ve gotten to know our professors more closely,” Kissinger said. “It really is worth it just getting to see the patients get better.”
Drs. Thielman, Roos, and Packel, and current students will be presenting data from the research at an upcoming physical therapy conference.