SCI Superstar: Dr. Susan Harkema

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We have many heroes in the spinal cord injury community, notably the rockstar SCI researchers. One of the most promising researchers is Dr. Susan Harkema, Director of the Neurorecovery Network, Rehabilitation Research Director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville and the Director of Research at Frazier Rehab Institute.

Dr. Harkema is the researcher who discovered that electrically stimulating the spinal cord can help us move our legs again. Yes, she has one amazing mind. From Katie to the Today Show, she has been featured all over the media and is the leading SCI researcher to know.

But research wasn’t always on her radar. From a career she thought was headed towards athletic training, Michigan-born Harkema was lured to the warmer weather of California where she discovered a passion for spinal cord injury research, and the rest as they say is history. Read on to see how Dr. Harkema’s determination to find a workable cure may just land her in the history books.

Why she’s fearless

Growing up in Michigan, Dr. Harkema attended Michigan State, and in the beginning of her college experience, she started out computer science major, and then she switched to electrical engineering. This overly-smart lady needed to find what made he tick.

Dr. Harkema eventually turned to research after working as a research tech in college, and this was where she found herself the most happy and the most challenged. After this experience she knew exactly what she wanted to do – full on research.

After graduating, Dr. Harkema went to California to study with her mentor who was also studying spinal cord injuries – UCLA’s Dr. Reggie Edgerton – and they looked at the possibilities of electrically stimulating the spinal cord for a couple of years. Eventually they were able to discover the right amount of stimulation needed from the electrodes enabled movements.

While in California she also studied for her doctorate in physiology, and upon graduating she was recruited to head a research lab at the University of Louisville in 2005, which is where she ‘s been since. Married and with a child, Dr. Harkema is only able to do all that she does because of her husband, who is one fabulous stay-at-home dad (he’s an actor in a comedian).

What’s next?

Since taking on the role of director of the Neurorecovery Center, Dr. Harkema is now working with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, helping to set up as many activity-based recovery centers as possible. This therapy combined with electrical stimulation to the spinal cord has produced bladder, bowel and sexual return, something Dr. Harkema was not expecting. No one is walking on their own yet, but some sensation ans muscle mass return has occurred. This is huge.

One of the first people to receive the 16 electrodes (implanted right below the level of injury) was former college baseball player Rob Summers. A few more men have been implanted with the same device/electrodes since and all have had the same results; even “complete” injuries – they too can move each leg independently when the stimulator is on.

Excited about her research, this year the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation is raising money for their “Big Idea” campaign. So far, Dr. Harkema has only done the experiment on a handful of healthy men in their twenties, but by this year’s end, chronic injuries and females may get a chance at the implant. We can’t wait to see where this research leads in the next few years.

Thank you Dr. Harkema for dedicating your life to such a noble cause.

Would you try electrode stimulation to move your legs again?

– Visit her research page: Harkema Lab – University of Louisville

Watch the videos!

Susan Harkema, PhD: 2014 Catholic Health Initiatives National Leadership Conference

Today Show interviews Susan Harkema

Susan Harkema, PhD

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