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PT Professor Receives NIH Grant to Continue MS Research

Dr. Gail WidenerSamuel Merritt University (SMU) physical therapy professor, Gail Widener - PT, PhD, has been awarded a grant of $399,146 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for her continuing research on Movement Ability Changes with Balance-Based Torso-Weighting (BBTW) in Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  This is the first NIH grant to be awarded to a faculty member at SMU in more than a decade. 

"I am thrilled that this grant will allow Dr. Widener to expand her research into the optimum methods of treating people with MS," said SMU President, Sharon Diaz.  "In our pursuit of becoming a nationally recognized institution, we know that faculty scholarship, like the research being conducted by Dr. Widener, will play a significant role in advancing health sciences knowledge." 

Dr. Widener co-authored this work with Dr. Diane Allen, an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and with Cynthia Gibson-Horn, PT, and inventor of the balance intervention investigated in this study.  Drs. Allen and Widener and Ms. Gibson-Horn have been collaborating for over seven years.  The research will take place on both the SMU and SFSU campuses, and represents the first research collaboration between the two Universities.

"The objective of this study is to document the kinematic and kinetic changes in balance and mobility in people with MS with and without a weighting intervention that is tailored to directional balance loss," said Dr. Widener.  "We're also looking at people with MS and comparing those folks to healthy controlled subjects of same age match controlled who are neurologically normal.  We're hoping through both of these studies to start having a much clearer picture of two things in particular: who improved with the weight system and what are the characteristics of those who improved.  We're also looking to see how this intervention is changing people's ability to move and doing it quickly rather than the strengthening program that usually can take up to a month or longer." 

Multiple Sclerosis is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system.  It can range from relatively benign to somewhat disabling to devastating, as communication between the brain and other parts of the body is disrupted.  According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, about 400,000 people in the United States have multiple sclerosis, which is often diagnosed between age 20 and 40.  It is more common among Caucasian populations, particularly those of northern European ancestry, and more common in women than in men.

"People with MS frequently have symptoms of imbalance, decreased mobility, and falls, which can have devastating effects on quality of life," explains Dr. Widener.  "With the information we gather from our proposed BBTW testing, we will have evidence to add to the scientific knowledge regarding the mechanism of light weighting as a sensory supplement to change strategies for postural control." 

Dr. Widener adds that the information gathered from the research can more effectively prescribe this intervention in clinical practice for appropriate individuals with MS or others that have similar movement dysfunction.  "Besides those with MS, individuals with central nervous system disorders like stroke, head injury, cerebellar ataxia, and cerebral palsy can have sensori-motor deficits that affect balance and mobility and may have similar responses to sensory supplement interventions like BBTW.  The concept of supplementing sensory input can effect immediate change in balance and mobility.  It may have a profound influence on the directions for future research."

Like most faculty at the University, Dr. Widener agrees that it's a positive and inspiring motivation for students to see professors actively engaged in research.  "I think it does open doors to think about other avenues that they may be involved with as PTs.  They may want to go on and get an advanced research degree like a PhD in order to pursue that.  I think that's one big reason that I like doing this."

"Strengthening the research contributions of the University to the larger community will position SMU to be more competitive for federal grants that in turn helps the institution fulfill its mission and strategies," adds President Diaz. "The SMU community is extremely proud of this national achievement, and we all express deep appreciation to the efforts of Dr. Widener and her colleagues."  

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