Rehabilitation expert leading research into spinal cord injuries

Renewal of Karim Fouad’s Canada Research Chair secures the future of spinal cord injury research at the U of A.

Jon Pullin - 13 March 2024

Karim Fouad

More than 4,000 Canadians suffer spinal cord injuries each year, often changing lives forever.

Karim Fouad, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, is leading a team of researchers focused on spinal cord injuries and getting more spinal cord injury researchers to share their study results.

Fouad recently had his Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Injury renewed by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“This CIHR Chair allows me to focus on and have protected time for research. It funds important preliminary projects that lead to more funding for spinal cord research,” says Fouad.

One of the first steps he took as part of his Chair’s research was to team up with researchers in California to create a database of all spinal cord injury research data called the Open Data Commons for Spinal Cord Injury.

“I realized that as researchers, we do not share and utilize our study findings efficiently. The majority of findings end up forgotten in a cabinet somewhere,” says Fouad.

“This central data repository provides researchers, health-care professionals and even patients access to important study data they wouldn’t normally see,” says Fouad.

The database has the potential to reduce publication bias as it includes so-called “negative results” that often don’t get published. It continues to grow, with the National Institutes of Health now enforcing data management and sharing plans.

Another focus of his has been studies on promoting neuroplasticity through inflammation.

“When talking about spinal cord injuries, neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our nervous system to adapt to both the injury and the training we undergo after that,” says Fouad.

“The nervous system is capable of rewiring itself, enabling some degree of recovery.”

Fouad and his team found that exposing a lesion to a mild inflammatory stimulus can significantly increase the effectiveness of post-injury rehabilitative training.  

They also found that inflammation in the nervous system can trigger changes in mental health, such as the onset of anxiety or depression, which are frequently reported in people with injuries or diseases of the nervous system. Surprisingly, they found that changes in the gut microbiome associated with injuries to the spinal cord may also play a key role in this problem.

“These findings may open up new treatment avenues, but may also teach us about the potential side-effects of using common anti-inflammatory drugs,” says Fouad.

A consequent and related project he is working on involves the use of biomarkers to identify the states of inflammation after a spinal injury. “If we can identify biomarkers for a state where plasticity is high, we could predict when the nervous system is most responsive to physical therapy.”

In another recent project, his team joined forces on a New Frontier in a Research grant called “Mend the Gap,” in which researchers began experimenting with using soft gel biomaterials to reconnect spinal cord injuries.

These minimally invasive and biocompatible gels are injected into the spinal cord gap and create a bridge for growing nerve fibres. The gels contain microscopic magnetic rods that are aligned using an external magnet to create guide rails for the new nerve fibres to grow along.

Designed to harden in place, they could also control the stable release of drugs.

The Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Injury receives $200,000 in funding annually for spinal cord research.

“An inspirational goal of my work is to find a treatment strategy that will allow us to enhance neuroplasticity and recovery in people with spinal cord injury,” says Fouad.

“I cannot imagine a better place to be than here at the U of A with a CIHR Chair.”