Dr. Katharine Polasek of the Hope College engineering faculty has received a major grant from the National Science Foundation for her continuing research into developing a non-invasive way to help amputees who are experiencing pain in limbs they no longer have.
The three-year, $282,446 award is funding her project “Treating Phantom Limb Pain with Electrically Induced Somatosensation.” It is providing support through the end of June 2021.
Building on research that Polasek has been conducting since 2010, the method involves applying small electrical currents to the nerves in the affected area in an attempt to provide the perception of touch on the missing limb. The researchers will also record brain signals during the therapy and across time to see if the brain itself begins to respond differently.
“Further knowledge of how the nervous system responds to electrical stimulation will help develop customized therapies for phantom limb pain as well as other neurological disorders,” said Polasek, an associate professor of engineering. “The option of a non-invasive therapy instead of taking drugs would be a momentous advance for people suffering from this pain.”
At the same time, Polasek and her team are hoping to develop a tool that patients can use at home. “We plan to develop a stimulation system that can be easily set up to generate realistic sensation across all individuals, to reduce the barriers to a home-based therapy,” she said.
Polasek is partnering with two others on the project: Dr. Dawn Taylor, a neuroscientist with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and Katie Johnson, CPO, a certified prosthetist with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. Polasek’s collaborative researchers also include Hope students working with her part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer.