Quadriplegic Barney Miller’s personal journey to walk again with exercise intervention

At the age of 20, northern NSW resident Barney Miller was a promising surfer who, after a car accident refused to believe what his doctor said. That his brain could not communicate with the rest of his body.

therapy after spinal cord injuryBarney didn’t accept that as a quadriplegic and will be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

After a decade in a wheelchair, a chance meeting with professional surfer Mick Fanning, Barney found himself at the US spinal cord rehabilitation centre, Project Walk. In 2009, Barney had a intensive physical therapy for three hours a day, four days a week. After two months, he felt a flicker in his gluteal muscle.

On another three month course at Project Walk in 2010, a real breakthrough came: he stood up on his own for the first time in eleven years. Barney had a new dream – to dance with his bride Kate who has been at his side during his turmoil and journey of recovery.

Barney’s journey of struggle, friendship and finding a soulmate has been made into a movie You and Me, which was released in cinemas in April.

The Project Walk program is based around neuroplasticity. They use specific exercises based on pattern neural activity through which it is thought the central nervous system develops its structure and function in the growing human being. In other words, Project Walk use an intensive activity to retrain patients from baby stages and work through repetitive exercise.

As the body begins to breakdown physiologically after a severe injury involving the spinal cord, the continuous repetition of movement may help to create a neural pattern in the brain and spinal cord. Also, relearning a specific motor task may be highly dependent on the repetitive stimuli provided when input from the brain is limited.

A neuroscientist from the University of Melbourne, Professor Mary Galea, said in the Daily Telegraph, “There is no automatic repair of the nervous system whether it is the brain or spinal cord that is damaged, there is no spontaneous regeneration, but in order for someone to get out of the chair and walk, they need some pathways that are spared.

“There has to be something left (in the spinal cord) and even if it’s just a little bit the brain plasticity comes into effect.

“Exercise will use the pathways that are still there and make connections with other parts of the spinal cord and brain and lead to improvement of function,” Prof Galea says.

Professor Mary Galea is at the forefront of research into neuroplasticity. She is a physiotherapist and neuroscientist whose research on the recovery of nervous system damage is recognised internationally. Her basic research has focused on the effects of spinal cord injury and the response to interventions, including exercise. Her clinical research has encompassed contributions to paediatric, neurological and women’s health physiotherapy.

Professor Galea is a Professorial Fellow at the University’s Department of Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and a Senior Principal Fellow in the Florey Institute of Neurosciences and Mental Health. She established the Rehabilitation Sciences Research Centre. She leads Spinal Cord Injury and Physical Activity (SCIPA) program which brings all the spinal units in Australia and New Zealand together in collaborative research.

In 2007, Professor Galea travelled to the USA, Canada, Switzerland and the UK for the Churchill Fellowship to investigate active rehabilitation programs for people with spinal cord injury. She stated in her report that exercise is the only known intervention that can have lasting effects on function after spinal cord injury, both in promoting neural recovery and in reducing secondary complications. Best practice includes provision of a comprehensive exercise program that includes, but is not limited to, the use of functional electrical stimulation and body weight-supported treadmill training to stimulate the paralysed limbs and improve functional outcomes.

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