Following damage to the brain, such as stroke or traumatic brain injury in adults and cerebral palsy in children, millions of individuals worldwide experience severe disability and mobility problems.
These people may lose the ability to move their limbs, leaving them dependent on others, and they may require extensive periods of rehabilitation to improve their ability to perform even the simplest tasks in daily life. This loss of mobility typically leads to diminished participation in family and community life, negatively affecting the quality of life of the individual.
Leading Innovation in Motor Recovery and Rehabilitation
As the Canadian population ages, the prevalence of people with mobility problems is likely to increase. The good news is that from infancy to old age, the brain is able to learn and adapt to new situations - the trick is to find the key factors that will trigger change in the right direction.
Determined to answer this challenge, Dr. Mindy Levin has made it her life’s work to study how the sensorimotor system is altered following brain damage and what the best techniques are to help the brain recover motor function.
“Rehabilitation aims to maximize the potential to recover or retrain lost motor function using adaptive brain capacities – a process known as neuroplasticity,” explains Dr. Levin, Professor at McGill University’s School of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy and Researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Rehabilitation of Greater Montreal (CRIR).
Her research aims at clarifying the mechanisms which underlie disordered sensorimotor control in individuals with brain damage based on the principles of motor control and motor learning. A second and integrated goal that Dr. Levin is pursuing involves using this new knowledge to develop more effective treatment interventions for rehabilitation, mainly of the upper limb.
“When there is damage to the brain, changes can occur in the ability of a person to control movement and interact with the environment,” explains Dr. Levin. “Rehabilitation aims to decrease the impact of these changes and to maximize a person’s functional use of the affected limb.”
To achieve these goals, Dr. Levin and her lab use detailed movement and clinical analyses and interventions that include cutting-edge technology such as robotics, exergaming (gaming that relies on tracking body movements or reactions to external stimuli) and 3D virtual reality immersive environments.
Her research has led to a new understanding of why people with brain lesions have difficulty activating their muscles efficiently and coordinating movements of different body segments (like the arm and trunk during reaching, trunk and leg during walking, both legs during walking) and is a leading influence in the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic tools for children and adults with sensorimotor problems.
A Diplomat of Canadian Health Research
Having trained as a Physical Therapist, Dr. Levin worked at the Institut de readaptation de Montreal for several years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, helping young people who had suffered serious injuries get back on their feet, both physically, mentally and spiritually.
During this period of time, there was rapid growth of new knowledge about neuroplasticity in the brain which represented new hope for these individuals – Dr. Levin wanted to learn more.
“I was extremely fortunate to meet and collaborate with one of the world’s most influential thinkers from the Russian school of Motor Control, Dr. Anatol Feldman, in 1988 at a Society for Neuroscience meeting in Toronto,” says Dr. Levin.
It was the period of Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union and Dr. Levin was instrumental in facilitating Anatol Feldman’s move to the west and establishment as a professor at the University of Montreal. “Our wonderful collaboration has not only led to many advancements in the areas of motor control and rehabilitation, but to two beautiful children as well,” says Dr. Levin.
Dr. Levin has indeed been a powerhouse of various collaborations in her field. She has not only helped to develop physical therapy research in Canada as head of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Physiotherapy Foundation of Canada, but has also been able to use her expertise to participate on national and international panels evaluating research evidence in order to provide best clinical practice guidelines, including the Canadian Stroke Network’s Evidence Based Review of Stroke Rehabilitation, StrokeEngine, CPEngine, and the International Upper Extremity Stroke Think Tank.
She has also been instrumental in helping to establish and develop international groups promoting physical therapy and rehabilitation such as the International Neurological Physical Therapy Association of the World Physical Therapy Association, the International Society of Motor Control and the International Society for Virtual Rehabilitation – all of which have led to even more fruitful associations and collaborative research efforts.
With no intention of retiring or even slowing down, Dr. Levin feels that it is important to keep an eye on future needs and is dedicated to the training of highly skilled rehabilitation researchers.
“Over the next decade, most Canadian universities will need to replace many of their current faculty,” explains Dr. Levin. “There is therefore a need to train the next generation of qualified rehabilitation professionals to increase research capacity in the field.”
Dr. Levin participates in the Motor Control Summer School annually that provides an intensive 3 day course to high level graduate students from around the world, and hopes that she has been, and can continue to be, a good role model for them.
“I hope that they can take our places and continue to move the field of motor control and rehabilitation further in the future,” she says.
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