Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a complex pathophysiology, characterized not only by paralysis but also severe autonomic cardiovascular dysfunction. After SCI, strokes are 300 – 400% more likely to occur compared to non-disabled individuals.
One potential explanation for this is autonomic dysreflexia (AD), a life-threatening condition whereby persons experience sudden, transient episodes of high blood pressure. Such volatile swings in blood pressure in individuals with SCI result in structural and functional changes within peripheral blood vessels and lead to the deterioration of peripheral organs, including the brain. In the general population, chronic hypertension is a key risk factor for cerebrovascular dysfunction (increased stroke-risk and cognitive impairment). However, it is currently unclear whether the cumulative load of AD plays a similar role in cerebrovascular and cognitive impairment in persons with SCI.
Using the latest technological advances in magnetic resonance imaging, Dr. Nightingale’s research will examine differences in the structure and function of micro-vessels in the brain between two groups of SCI participants with different durations of SCI (and thus AD exposure), relative to an able-bodied age-matched control group. The results of this research will lead to a better understanding of AD in SCI individuals, and potentially improve treatment to better prevent the occurrence of stroke.