Rehabilitation Medicine: Research Activities and Scientific Advances

Through its intramural and extramural organizational units, the NICHD supports and conducts a broad range of research projects that fall under the rehabilitation medicine umbrella, as well as research on conditions that cause disabilities. Short descriptions of these activities are included below.

Institute Activities and Advances

Several NICHD organizational units support and conduct research related to rehabilitation medicine. Some of this research aims to establish an evidence base for the development of best practices; other activities aim to improve health outcomes related to specific diseases and conditions that cause disability, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and stroke.

The Institute's National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR) fosters the development of scientific knowledge to enhance the health, productivity, independence, and quality of life of people with physical disabilities through basic and clinical research. The NCMRR also serves as the coordinating body for rehabilitation research across the NIH and seeks collaborative opportunities with other NIH Institutes.

The NCMRR supports the development and application of devices to improve the human-environment interface and to restore or enhance an individual’s capacity to function in his or her environment. This type of applied research and rehabilitation technology includes, but is not limited to, prosthetics, wheelchairs, biomechanical modeling, and other devices that aim to enhance mobility, communication, cognition, and environmental control.

The Center supports some of these activities through the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. For example, NCMRR recently awarded funding to IntelliWheels, Inc. External Web Site Policy , to develop ultra-lightweight, multi-geared wheels for manual wheelchairs to give users increased mobility and independence. Another NICHD-funded SBIR grant involves development and testing of an instrumented glove for rehabilitation of individuals who have lost hand function from stroke. The glove requires the user to practice gripping movements by playing a computer game.

Through its research programs, the NCMRR addresses specific issues in rehabilitation medicine:

  • The Behavioral Sciences and Rehabilitation Technologies (BSRT) Program supports research related to development or redevelopment of emotional, cognitive, and physical processes and characteristics. This work includes interventions to encourage behavioral development in children with disabilities, as well as research on behavioral plasticity. The rehabilitative technology portion of the BSRT Program supports research that applies bioengineering principles to developing assistive technology to help people with disabilities perform daily tasks and activities.
  • Projects within the Biological Sciences and Career Development (BSCD) Program support basic research on substrate responses to injury and on strategies to promote regeneration, plasticity, adaptation, and recovery. This research includes studies on topics ranging from activity-mediated processes, such as treadmill training and constrained-use therapy, to genomic influences on outcomes and recovery. This Program also includes research on secondary conditions, such as pain, depression, and cardiovascular dysfunction.
  • Projects within the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Stroke Rehabilitation (TSR) Program involve studying how to improve recovery of abilities that can be affected by TBI and stroke, including movement, mobility, and language, as well as mental health problems. Other ongoing areas of research include studies of combinations of pharmacological, surgical, and physical therapies to improve outcomes; the effect of compensatory training for unimpaired extremities; and measuring caregiver burden at different times following a stroke.
  • Scientists supported by the Spinal Cord and Musculoskeletal Disorders and Assistive Devices (SMAD) Program conduct research to develop rehabilitation technology for individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) and musculoskeletal disorders such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus.

A few advances by NCMRR-funded scientists are described below. Additional advances are available in the right column of this page.

  • NCMRR-funded scientists are currently working on major breakthroughs in walking technologies for lower-limb amputees. For example, at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, a muscle-actuated robotic below-knee prosthesis is being developed that will give amputees a powered ankle joint capable of better meeting the demands of human locomotion than the passive ankle joints found in current prostheses (PMID: 25571414). Scientists at Vanderbilt University are developing paired, coordinated robotic ankle and knee prostheses for bilateral transfemoral amputees. This will restore awareness and stability between the prostheses to enhance patients’ ability to walk (PMID: 25014950). At the University of Texas, scientists are studying the mechanics of falling in lower-limb amputees and designing rehabilitative interventions to prevent falls (PMID: 25797789).
  • Scientists supported in part by the NICHD, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed and implanted a wireless sensor into the brains of pigs and monkeys that recorded and transmitted information about brain activity for more than a year. The sensor could be used to study the brain’s muscle and movement control mechanisms in animals that are able to interact more naturally with their environments. It could also eventually be used in severely neurologically impaired patients for wireless control of prosthetics that move with the power of thought, as well as in controlling motorized wheelchairs or other assistive technologies (PMID: 23428937).
  • Experts previously believed that recovery from TBI could occur only within a year after sustaining the injury. However, new findings from University of Texas at Dallas researchers indicate that a type of brain training called “gist-reasoning training” can improve cognitive performance months and even years after injury. Adolescents who experienced TBI at least 6 months prior to study enrollment completed eight, 45-minute training sessions over the course of a month. The gist-reasoning training involved reading texts and creating summaries and recalling important facts. Compared to a control group, the gist training group displayed significant improvement in several cognitive functions. The results suggest that this kind of cognitive training can be effective at improving brain functioning at 6 months and beyond the injury (PMID: 24966850).
  • Researchers supported in part by NICHD reported on results from on ongoing clinical trial of a brain-computer interface called BrainGate that allows paralyzed individuals to use their thoughts to control a robotic arm that makes reach-and-grasp movements. The published report documented the ability of a paralyzed study participant to reach for and sip from a drink with no assistance. The article reported on several other tasks that the participants were able to complete. While the device requires additional testing before it can be widely used in paralyzed patients, it could eventually represent a way to restore some level of everyday function in these individuals (PMID: 22596161).

In addition to NCMRR, the several other NICHD components also address rehabilitation medicine research, including (but not limited to):

In the Division of External Research (DER), the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch (IDDB) sponsors research and research training intended to prevent and ameliorate a variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities. These efforts include support of national research networks and programs that include some rehabilitation medicine–related work: Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) Program, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities Research Centers (EKS-IDDRCs), the Fragile X Syndrome Research Center (FXSRC) Program, and the Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Cooperative Research Centers (MDCRCs).

The DER Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch supports research that addresses the prevention, treatment, management, and outcomes of physical and psychological trauma and the surgical, medical, psychosocial, and systems interventions needed to improve outcomes for critically ill and injured children across the developmental trajectory. The Branch also focuses on the continuum of psychosocial, behavioral, biological, and physiological influences that affect child health outcomes in trauma, injury, and acute care.

In the Division of Intramural Research (DIR), the Section on Nervous System Development and Plasticity conducts research on the development of the nervous system and nervous system plasticity during fetal and early postnatal life. Studies include investigations of mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, neuron-glia signaling, development of neural precursor cells, and implications for learning and memory.

The DIR Program on Pediatric Imaging and Tissue Sciences develops and evaluates non-invasive imaging methods for assessing normal development, screening, diagnosis, and prognosis of diseases, disorders, and disabilities in pediatric populations. Studies include both basic and applied explorations of the science of tissues, physics and imaging. The Program’s Section on Tissue Biophysics and Biomimetics invents, develops, and implements novel quantitative in vivo methods for imaging tissues and organs. For example, an ongoing study uses multimodal magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate cerebral reorganization caused by various rehabilitation approaches in children with cerebral palsy and TBI. Another line of investigation examines plasticity changes after rehabilitation in military personnel affected by TBI.

Other Activities and Advances

  • Medical Rehabilitation Research Infrastructure Network (MRRIN)
    MRRIN, funded through the NCMRR, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the NIBIB, is a centralized medical rehabilitation research infrastructure that provides investigators with access to expertise, courses, workshops, technologies, core services, research training, pilot project funding, and collaborative, multidisciplinary opportunities. The Network currently consists of seven medical center sites across the country.
  • Blue Ribbon Panel on Rehabilitation Research
    The NICHD convened a panel comprising 13 non-NIH scientific experts who were tasked with reviewing medical rehabilitation research within NCMRR and across NIH to identify promising research opportunities. Panel findings were released in June 2012: Blue Ribbon Panel on Rehabilitation Research at the NIH (PDF–528 KB).
  • The NICHD, along with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), administers grants funded by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) and the National Football League intended to answer some of the fundamental questions about TBI. These cooperative awards will allow teams of scientists to correlate brain scans with changes in brain tissue, possibly making it possible to diagnose chronic effects of TBI in living individuals.
  • The NICHD has also teamed up with NINDS to fund an eight-center, randomized clinical trial for the study of arm rehabilitation following stroke. Called ICARE, the trial compared an experimental upper-extremity rehabilitation protocol with usual care.
  • NIH Clinical Center
    At the Clinical Center, rehabilitation medicine professionals collaborate with NICHD and other NIH IC investigators in support of biomedical rehabilitation research. They initiate research in rehabilitation sciences by providing innovative rehabilitation services and developing, investigating and applying measurements and treatments of impairments, disabilities and handicaps pertaining to human function. The team also provides consultations, clinical assessments, and treatments for patients.
  • NIH Pain Consortium
    The consortium is an initiative consisting of representative members of most of the NIH ICs with programs related to pain, including the NICHD. The Consortium was designed to promote increased pain research across the NIH.
  • From 2002 to 2012, NCMRR supported the TBI Clinical Trials Network. This network comprised eight level 1 trauma centers throughout the United States and designed and executed a clinical trial of citicoline (2,000 mg daily for 90 days) vs. placebo to treat complicated mild, moderate, and severe TBI. The Citicoline Brain Injury treatment Trial (COBRIT) was a phase III, double-blind, randomized clinical trial which ran from 2007 through 2011. The main outcome measures were functional and cognitive status, assessed at 90 days after injury using a core test battery developed by the Network. Rates of favorable outcome did not significantly differ between the treatment and placebo groups at the post-injury times evaluated. The data from the COBRIT trial are available to requesting investigators through the Federal Interagency Traumatic Brain Injury Research Informatics System (FITBIR).