Rewiring Pathways in Spinal Injury Patients

For the last three years of her undergraduate career at Fordham, Rose Hill senior Lauren Mance has had the opportunity to work closely with neuroscientists at the Wadsworth Center, a New York Department of Health hospital in Albany. There, she has studied the effects of operant conditioning, or the re-learning of functional bodily mechanisms via stimulation in patients with central nervous system (CNS) deficits, in order to increase functional recovery through neuroplasticity. Her passion for the study of the human brain and its relationship to behavior and function has led her to pursue a psychology major, cybersecurity and biology minors, and two concentrations in cognitive neuroscience and behavior. When asked why she chose her academic path and specifically her research project Mance explained, “I’m very interested in cognition. I’m interested in abnormal and forensic psychology, more specifically the biological underpinnings of mental disorders and their biological and psychological treatment. In terms of forensic psychology, I’m interested in how the criminal mind, its behavior, and its biopsychosocial factors contribute to criminal behavior.” 

Mance’s research focuses on the effects that learning and conditioning have on the nervous system. Primarily working with patients who have CNS disorders, Mance and her team utilize electrostimulation on spinal reflexes in an attempt to test their hypothesis that operant conditioning and simple skill training can achieve plastic changes, which is the rewiring of damaged reflex pathways. Specifically, in an attempt to mimic the body’s sympathetic skin response (SSR), which can be detected as a voltage pathway in response to stimuli, the patient’s basic spinal reflex known as the Hoffman reflex is stimulated in operant conditioning of the CNS. Mance expanded further on the details of her project: “We use cathode stimulation and our own software called Evoke Potential Operate Conditioning System, or EPOCS, where we mimic the SSR using the Hoffman reflex, which is the electrical mimic of the reflex, to try and operatively condition people’s reflexes so that they can regain motor function in their upper and lower limbs.” Essentially, Mance and her team utilize various reflex stimulation techniques in order to investigate the systemic and functional effects of conditioning on the CNS.

The research project has been a key part in Mance’s undergraduate education and has further developed her passion for neuroscience and cognition studies. With this experience, she has been able to see first-hand the changes that she has helped to implement: “We actually have a stroke patient who has been coming to us for about four years. We’ve been working primarily with his gait symmetry in his feet so that he can walk better. He limps and drags his feet a lot, but his gait symmetry has improved within the last 4 years.” 

Mance hopes to continue her research in this field through postgraduate research and academics as she applies to masters programs at top schools like Columbia and NYU.  Rewiring CNS pathways to improve the quality of life in injured patients is certainly a great start to this journey. 

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