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NCMRR Director Alison Cernich Gains Inspiration from Patients

Dr. Alison CernichImproving the lives of people with disabilities through research is the mission of NICHD’s National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research (NCMRR).  

Among the many projects the center has funded are the development of new assistive devices and technologies, such as prosthetics and improved mobility devices, and projects to help deliver better health services to people with disabilities. NCMRR also funds research to develop new diagnostics and interventions in rehabilitation, manage chronic symptoms, such as pain, and help find ways to adapt the home and community environments to rehabilitation care.

Alison Cernich, Ph.D., has overseen the NCMRR’s portfolio of research projects and training programs since becoming director in early 2015.

In this interview, Dr. Cernich talks about innovative technologies that are improving mobility and recovery for patients of all ages and her thoughts on future directions for rehabilitation research. She also provides a valuable piece of advice to those in the rehabilitation field: Always keep in mind the people you are working to help.

Watch highlights from this conversation.

Read the NICHD Rehabilitation Research: Funding Technology, Inspiring Ability text alternative.​

Where we are now

What do you see as some of the most pressing issues in rehabilitation today, and what role could the NCMRR play in resolving them?

There are a number of pressing issues that cut across the research that NIH supports. Some of them center on how rehabilitation changes at the different stages of a person’s life; the rehabilitation needs of a child are very different than those of an older individual.

  • We need to better understand the needs of our pediatric patients and figure out how to deliver treatments that are developmentally appropriate for them.
  • We need to better understand the needs of the families of people with disabilities and the people who help care for people with disabilities.
  • And we need to know how to intervene to make the environment better.

There is a need to find out whether we are developing technologies and devices that users want and can use effectively. Another challenge is to develop standards for interventions used for various impairments that we can disseminate to the community. We have to look at areas where rehabilitation can benefit from advances in precision medicine. Finally, we have to address the challenges of conducting clinical trials in rehabilitation.

What are some examples of NCMRR-supported technologies that are helping people now?

Our assistive technology projects mostly fall into two categories:

  • refinement of existing systems to make them easier to use, and
  • development of new systems that provide a novel way to assist someone with disabilities

An example of a refinement of an existing technology is the development of IntelliWheels Easy Push External Web Site Policy, which makes it much easier to propel a manual wheelchair without having the weight of a powered chair.

One of the novel systems we helped fund is the Mount’n Mover External Web Site Policy, which helps wheelchair users with limited or no use of their arms use devices independently.

Where we are going

What advances in rehabilitation might we expect in the near future?

The field of rehabilitation is poised for great advances, from bionics (integrating technology with biological systems to achieve function), to assistive devices that are more intuitive for the user with a disability, to the basic understanding of the body’s ability to adapt or regain function after injury.

I think one of the areas poised for exciting developments is how we refine some of the more sophisticated technologies that show such potential for mobility or functional assistance and make them more easily powered, more intuitively controlled, and lower in cost.

The other area where rehabilitation is poised to make inroads is in using available data for discovery. A number of scientists are looking at publicly available data to determine the issues most pressing for individuals with disability and how we target those with interventions across their lifespan.

What advice do you have for students or trainees who may be considering a career in rehabilitation research?

First, find the profession or area of work that holds your interest and excites your curiosity. Seek out mentors who share that interest and who are invested in bringing you into the field and building your expertise.

Finally, and probably most importantly, get to know the people who may benefit from your research. Attend advocacy group meetings, go to the clinic, volunteer with a community group. The way to keep your motivation and drive is to keep in mind the people you are working to help.

BOND National Institues of Health Home Home Division of Intramural Population Health Research