WHITE PLAINS — Beth Hynes, a smiley-faced 8-year-old, watched with a mixture of amusement and boredom as a group of adults attached odd looking pieces of equipment to her small body.
“You have no fashion sense,” she informed researcher Jason Fuller, a kinesiologist, as he placed a metallic headband with spokes that resembled a horn atop her blond hair.
The researchers aren’t interested in fashion. They are hoping information from different parts of Beth’s body will shed light onto how a damaged brain can repair itself.
Beth suffered a stroke sometime before she was born. It wasn’t until she was several months old that doctors put a name to her tendency to clench her fist and drag her leg: cerebral palsy.
Just how the brains of children like Beth learn to compensate for the damage they have suffered is a continuing project of the newly created Burke Medical Research Institute’s Early Brain Injury Recovery Program.
The institute is the first of its kind in the state to focus on children, and scientists hope it will become a resource for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy and similar conditions as well as those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“In neurology, anatomy is considered destiny, with the pattern of brain injury determining which neurological functions are lost,” said Kathleen Friel, a neurophysiologist who is director of the clinical laboratory at the recovery program. “But we believe that for children with early brain injury, anatomy is not destiny and we can improve their neurological outcomes.”
Her research has focused on cerebral palsy — for good reason. She was born with the condition 39 years ago.
When she was a baby, her parents were told there was little chance she would be able to live an independent life.
Friel received a doctorate at the University of Kansas Medical Center and conducted her post-doctoral studies at Columbia University. She lives in White Plains.
The scientist has a speech impediment and is a bit unsteady on her feet, but her movements as she greeted Beth and her family at the Burke laboratory last week were purposeful and enthusiastic.
The Staten Island child is enrolled in one of several studies of children with cerebral palsy and other brain injuries at the White Plains rehabilitation hospital.
The funny-looking headband attached to her head and the electrodes on her arms allowed the researchers to conduct a treatment called transcranial direct current stimulation. It involves a painless magnetic current that stimulates parts of her brain. Researchers measure the muscle response in her arms and hands.
Many of the million or so people nationwide with cerebral palsy have weakness or partial paralysis of part of their body, a condition known as hemiplegia. Friel and the scientists in her laboratory want to know if using transcranial direct current stimulation can help people like Beth improve hand strength and coordination.
“When you ask people with cerebral palsy what they would most like to improve, overwhelmingly they say their hands,” Friel said.
The research program seeks to figure out which parts of the brain are most affected by transcranial direct current and if the stimulation results in improved use of the impaired hand.
Beth’s parents, Larry and Kathy Hynes, think they know the answer already.
Their daughter has been concentrating this summer on improving her hand strength, both through the research project in Friel’s laboratory and an affiliated program at Columbia University. The work is paying off, her family said.
Her father proudly shows off a rainbow bracelet Elisabeth made, something she did not previously have the coordination to complete. And she has become a wiz at playing cards since she gained the ability to hold and shuffle them.
“I still beat her at Go Fish,” said her sister, Deloris, 11, who accompanied her sister and parents on their trip to White Plains last week.
The treatments in a laboratory run by a scientist who also has cerebral palsy has another benefit, Kathy Hynes said.
“Dr. Friel is a great role model,” she said. “It shows Beth that she is not limited — she can do anything.”
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