Long-time passion for patients with spinal cord injuries helps Aiko Thompson, Ph.D., earn $1.62 million NIH grant

Amanda Lawson
January 24, 2020
Dr. Aiko Thompson and research study participant, Tina Doscher, demonstrating research protocols in the MUSC College of Health Professions Research Building
Dr. Aiko Thompson and research participant, Tina Doscher, during an event at the College of Health Professions Research Building. 


For some people, the measurement of success is found in dollars in a bank account or ticks in a sales column, but for Aiko Thompson, an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences and Research at CHP, it is often measured in something as small as the wiggle of a finger.

A native of southwest Japan, Thompson has spent the past 15 years conducting studies focused on helping patients with spinal cord injuries regain or restore lost function. She uses a unique protocol to train muscle responses to brain stimulation, which in turn help the patient’s brain and spinal cord to relearn to communicate with each other to move the patient’s arm or leg.

Most recently awarded a $1.62 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to be distributed through 2025, Thompson works with patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries – that is, patients who still have some feeling or movement below the site of their injury.

“I did my undergraduate and master’s education in Japan. In the second year of my master’s training, one of my lab mates’ father suffered a spinal cord injury,” Thompson said. “That had an impact on me in terms of what kind of research I wanted to do. I had always had an interest in the plasticity of the nervous system, the ability of the nervous system to change its function, and acquisition of motor skills, but after her father’s injury, I started thinking about how we could direct our knowledge of plasticity and motor skill learning to help people who become disabled to relearn their lost motor function.”

In Thompson’s lab, their unique muscle response training methods utilize surface recording of the electrical activity of muscles (electromyography, EMG) and spinal reflex measurements during functional movement, transcranial magnetic stimulation, motion analysis, and in some cases, electroencephalography (EEG).

While methods vary, the goal, to put it plainly, is to help patients achieve maximum function recovery – either by helping them learn to maximize what’s available to them, in terms of neural pathways, or helping them discover and learn to use pathways they never knew they had.

At the University of Alberta, where Thompson earned her doctorate degree, she assisted with studies that focused on patients with central nervous system (CNS) injuries including stroke, spinal cord injuries, brain injury, and multiple sclerosis.

From there, her work ultimately took her to Helen Hayes Hospital, New York State Department of Health’s rehabilitation hospital outside of New York City. There Thompson was affiliated with Columbia University in New York City and the State University of Albany, where she served as an assistant professor and an associate professor of neuroscience, respectively.

In 2015, she landed at MUSC, where she has since earned grants from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund, the NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and now NIH NINDS R01 Research Project Grant.

Through her most recent work, she has helped patients with incomplete spinal cord injury from the Charleston area, restore function that, in some cases, seemed lost forever or completely unattainable.

Tina Doscher, 60, of West Ashley, has participated in nearly all of Thompson’s studies at MUSC. Born in 1959 with what doctors diagnosed over 50 years later as a spinal arteriovenous malformation (AVM), Doscher had very limited use of her left limbs when she began working with Thompson and her research team.

“In the first study I did with Aiko, we worked on my wrist and fingers in my left hand. After we finished that study, I got movements in those two fingers, and that had never happened before in my life,” Doscher said. “Since then I’ve worked with her on my left leg and, of course, my left hand. I can feel a difference and you can visually see a difference in the way I hold myself.”

Thompson, whose goal is to provide spinal cord patients options beyond conventional physical therapy, says the results she has seen in her patients so far are “very rewarding.”

“We want to be able to help Tina and other patients like her get the best motor function they can achieve at any given time,” Thompson said. “We want them to live happier lives. Little things like being able to go around the rooms inside their homes, to go out with friends, to go shopping, to go out for dinner, these are things that can have a major impact on their lives. So that’s what we’re trying to help them achieve. We hope our hypothesis is right and our approach works so that patients become able do more than what they can do now.”

The NIH grant Thompson was most recently awarded will investigate operant conditioning training of the brain-to-spinal cord pathway to improve the activation of the ankle dorsiflexor and leg motor functions.

The new study, which is expected to begin this year, is a training study that involves 60 visits over 3.5 months (and another 8 visits over an additional 3 months). Each visit will take about an hour. The study will recruit 40-44 participants in the Charleston area or those with reliable transportation to MUSC. Participants, which are currently being sought, must be at least 18 years old and have incomplete spinal injuries.

“I genuinely believe this approach can do something really good for people with spinal cord injury, and this is just the beginning,” Thompson said. “Our goal is to have a better understanding of this whole approach in this very defined class of people with spinal cord injuries. Then, once we gain more knowledge, we can do this with other people with movement disorders, including those with multiple sclerosis and stroke. For me, this is just the beginning. There is so much more to be done.”