Exciting medical breakthroughs are taking place in Westchester County as Burke Neurological Institute out of White Plains — joined by researchers at Teachers College-Columbia University and Weill Cornell Medicine — has examined whether the way a child’s brain is organized impacts how well they improve with intensive hand training in individuals with cerebral palsy.
Cerebral palsy is the most common movement disability in childhood, caused by damage to the developing brain before, during, or shortly after birth. CP affects a person’s ability to control their muscles and often leads to impairments in mobility or movement. Researchers at Burke Neurological Institute, however, believe that this landmark study could help determine which therapeutic course would best benefit different patients.
For the study, 82 children across the country participated in “hand therapy camp” for 90 hours over the course of three weeks, in which they engaged in intensive training therapy sessions involving either HABIT (Hand-Arm Bimanual Intensive Training) or CIMT (Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy), two upper body therapy techniques that have been found to be effective in teaching new skills to children who have CP. After the three weeks, researchers noticed significant improvements in hand and arm function, which they believe will allow these children to learn new, long-term life skills regardless of how the injured brain had re-wired itself.
MaryClare McDonough is one shining example of the long-term benefits of “hand camp.” A 24-year old Chappaqua native, a graduate of Horace Greeley High School and Connecticut College, and an employee of a special education school in Manhattan, McDonough also has cerebral palsy on her right side resulting from a pre-natal stroke. Although McDonough has never let her disability define her, she still looked for a way to become more confident and independent as she anticipated living on her own. When she heard that this study was opening at Burke Neurological Institute in White Plains, she jumped at the opportunity to take part.
“Honestly, it was such an incredible experience,” says McDonough. “I definitely felt more confident in my abilities to try out new things, to incorporate my right arm in more activities.”
This clinical trial, overseen by Dr. Andrew Gordon of the Center for Cerebral Palsy Research at Teachers College-Columbia University and by Dr. Kathleen Friel of Weill Cornell Medical College and who also has a lab at Burke Neurological Institute in White Plains, came after nearly two decades of research on the correlation between intensive therapy and CP.
“The research showed us that the motor system exhibits an extraordinary capacity to adapt,” explains Dr. Friel, who has CP herself. “We were pleased to finally acquire hard data showing that intensive hand therapies improve a child’s ability to move, play, learn, and progress, no matter which type of brain connectivity pattern they had.”
Today, MaryClare McDonough is preparing to move to Boston to pursue a Masters in Speech-Language Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute of Health Professions. McDonough says it was this study that helped her to choose this career path when she was inspired by a neuropsychologist administering cognitive tests at hand camp and “saw all of the puzzle pieces start to fit together.”
McDonough expresses her gratitude for the impacts hand camp has had on her life as she says, “I want to reiterate how grateful I am to have participated in this clinical trial, and to have been able to learn from and work with Dr. Friel and Dr. Gordon, as well as their teams. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly,” she says, “and it was really powerful to be part of something that would hopefully contribute to the larger purpose of improving therapies for children with hemiplegia and other forms of cerebral palsy.”
So just as MaryClare McDonough’s future appears big and bright, with these new findings, so does the future of treating individuals living with CP.