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  March 26, 2001

Faghri Developing Exercise Technology
for People with Disabilities

Pouran Faghri's research could be as emotionally draining as it is fulfilling, but she chooses the latter. Through science and advocacy, Faghri, an associate professor of allied health, is determined to improve the quality of life for people with physical disabilities.

Her patients range from senior citizens limited by a stroke, to teenagers left wheelchair-bound by a spinal cord injury. And at the heart of her work is her belief that, "If exercise is essential for good health in the general population, then exercise is even more important for people with limited abilities."

By combining her training as a medical doctor and as an exercise physiologist, Faghri has spent more than 17 years in experimental research design focused on exercise and rehabilitation. She holds joint appointments in the departments of kinesiology and biomedical engineering. Because of the nature of her work and the need for research participants, Faghri often works in conjunction with the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain.

Her most recent projects are rooted to one of her greatest achievements so far. While at Wright State University in the1980s, Faghri was involved in work with two colleagues who pioneered a bicycle-like contraption using functional electrical stimulation (FES). Electrodes are attached to the patient's paralyzed leg muscles, and a series of electrical impulses trigger muscle contractions, which in turn, causes leg movement.

The leg cycle is now sold commercially by several companies and is used for exercise and rehabilitation for people with a variety of physical disabilities. Christopher Reeve, the Hollywood actor paralyzed during a horseback riding accident, is one of them.

Faghri believes electrical stimulation could have far greater uses, and her research subjects are her inspiration to push the technology ahead. She is amazed by their willingness

"to do whatever is necessary to make life better for someone else in their condition.

"When they are on the cycle, you have to see the excitement in their faces," she says. "It is a quality of life issue. It is psychological. To know they are in control again - their legs are moving again - it can be very emotional for my patients and for me."

She is committed to developing the technology so that it is user-friendly and practical. In one project, Faghri and doctoral student, Randy Trumbower, are working to optimize the leg cycle's cardio-fitness effects. This is done with a computer that can adjust the pattern and intensity of stimulation, as well as the number of muscles stimulated, depending on the individual's muscle size and condition. Women and those with small bodies would benefit significantly from this improvement.

The research team's ultimate goal is to turn the leg cycle into a bicycle that can be used outdoors. It is a far more complicated process than the leg cycle. Additional muscles need to be activated by the stimuli, and determining the complex sequencing of the electrical impulses is critical to its success. Faghri and Trumbower are still developing the technology, but are confident the FES bike will soon become a reality.

In another endeavor, Faghri and a colleague at the University of Southern California are anxiously awaiting word on funding approval for research they believe could put paralyzed people on their feet and maybe even walk again.

They are working on a mini version of the functional electrical stimulator. Using nano technology, tiny stimulators are implanted inside muscles and a remote control, rather than wires, activate the electrical pulses. This technology has been tested on stroke victims to reduce the nerve damage that usually occurs on the shoulder. Faghri and her partner would be the first to use this same technology for spinal cord injuries.

Faghri has also modified FES technology to combat a health problem that has been making headlines around the world for the past six months. The media refer to it as 'economy class syndrome,' because several people died and a number of others suffered strokes after long airplane flights in cramped seats.

The condition's medical name is deep venous thrombosis, but it is hardly a new phenomenon, says Faghri. She began development of a portable FES system four years ago with pilots and passengers in mind. Anyone with a sedentary lifestyle is susceptible to developing problems but those particularly at risk are the elderly, obese, diabetics, and disabled people.

The condition occurs when a person is immobile for lengthy periods. Blood pools collect in the lower limbs and clots form. When a person stands up, muscle contractions cause the clots to release into the blood stream. If a person is lucky, the clots are small and they dissolve without incident. But large clots can enter the lungs, heart or brain and cause a debilitating or fatal condition.

Faghri has evaluated the effects of FES in preventing venous blood clot formation in those with spinal cord injuries, stroke patients, during anesthesia and on able-bodied individuals exposed to prolonged immobility. With very positive results in hand, she has just applied for a patent for her device which could easily be used by people on board an airplane or at work.

Although juggling her many projects can be challenging, Faghri takes it all in stride.

"When you see what these people go through day to day, it can be very emotional," she says. "But when I see that what we're doing is benefitting them, it makes me go on."

Janice Palmer