Dr Bradnam, a Physiotherapist and Neuroscientist based in Flinders University’s Clinical Effectiveness Cluster at the Repatriation General Hospital, has recently won a coveted Brain Foundation award to pursue her research into the treatment of focal hand dystonia – or writer’s cramp – using a non-invasive stimulation in an area of the brain known as the cerebellum.
Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that causes muscles in the body to contract or spasm involuntarily, producing twisting, repetitive movements and abnormal postures.
Focal dystonia is confined to a particular body part such as the face or neck, however focal hand dystonia (FHD) is isolated to the hands and usually affects people who repetitively perform fine finger movements, such as musicians or creative writers.
Using a non-invasive brain stimulation device, Dr Bradnam said she will stimulate the cerebellum to determine whether this can correct a patient’s hand movements.
Several variations of the stimulation will be used to gauge the most effective technique, she said.
“Research has shown the cerebellum could be a factor in dystonia by its connections with motor structures deep in the brain as well as the motor cortex but we’re not really sure exactly how it’s involved, and no one has ever looked at cerebellar stimulation for this particular disorder,” Professor Bradnam said.
“Non-invasive brain stimulation of the motor cortex has shown some pretty promising results in stroke trials and cerebellar stimulation may help movement disorders in Parkinson’s disease, so we hope we can achieve a similar outcome with FHD.”
About 15 participants will be recruited for the pilot study next year and Dr Bradnam hopes the results will attract further funding to conduct a larger clinical trial after that.
“At this stage we want to find out whether stimulating the cerebellum actually influences hand movements, and if it does then what is the best stimulation mechanism,” Dr Bradnam said.
“Once we know that we hope to conduct a clinical trial using repeated doses of the most effective method to see if we can produce any long-term benefits.”
Dr Bradnam said she was confident the initial study, which will involve a series of three tests over three hours, will break new ground in a relatively unknown field of research.
“If we can see even a transient improvement in a patient’s movement from a one-off acute session then we know we’re onto something and hopefully we will get even better results with more intense, repeated treatments,” she said.
“I’m very grateful to the Brain Foundation for the award to make this research possible.”