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UGA kinesiology researcher receives $1.7 million grant

UGA kinesiology researcher receives $1.7 million NIH grant to explore use of electric stimulation of muscles as tool against diabetes

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia researchers who have developed a treatment that improves blood sugar levels in paraplegics, reducing their risk of becoming diabetic, are now asking if the same method can help treat or even reverse the condition in paraplegics who already have diabetes.

Kevin McCully, a professor in the College of Education’s department of kinesiology, is principal investigator of the study which has received a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow up on a discovery that may offer a solution to people with paralysis who developed diabetes as a result of their injury.

“We’re pretty excited about this. It’s an important health problem.” said McCully, director of the Exercise Vascular Biology Laboratory in the Ramsey Center.

The hopeful results were an unexpected discovery made by McCully and the late UGA Distinguished Research professor Gary Dudley. The scientists initially used electrical stimulation as a way of exercising leg muscles that their subjects could no longer flex, or even feel, believing that strength training can help people with complete paralysis-those who are completely unable to move their legs-improve their cardiovascular health.

“What we found was yes indeed, we could resistance train them,” said McCully. “Their muscle size increased and their blood flow improved.”

But while monitoring the subjects’ oral tolerance to glucose, using a simple test that can show whether a person is likely to develop diabetes, the researchers made an exciting discovery. They found that the strength training dramatically improved glucose sensitivity, greatly reducing the study participants’ chance of getting diabetes.

Improvements in medical care have made it possible for paraplegics to live much longer than they would have in the past. However, living longer lives means they also must wrestle with common health problems other populations often face.

Diabetes, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, is related to the pancreas, an organ near the stomach that produces a hormone called insulin. In people with diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or their bodies aren’t able to use the insulin properly, which can lead to serious complications such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness.

“People who are paralyzed are three to four times more likely to become diabetic,” said McCully. “So it’s an important health problem, and our continuation is to follow up on that.”

The high-tech treatment is surprisingly simple. By attaching electrodes to paraplegics’ thighs from small battery-operated current generators and sending a mild electric current into the legs, the nerve endings are stimulated, generating force and expending energy the same way a muscle would contract in a non-paralyzed person.

The upcoming study is part of a nearly decade-long collaborative effort between UGA and the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. College of Education faculty members Lesley White, an associate professor in kinesiology, and Stephen Olejnik, a professor of educational psychology, are co-investigators.

Dudley forged an alliance between UGA and the Shepherd Center in the late 1990s, where he himself was taken for rehabilitation following a catastrophic car accident in 2002. A year later, he was back in the classroom, defying predictions that he would live in a nursing home the rest of his life. Dudley worked at NASA and the University of Ohio before joining the UGA faculty in 1993, where he was named a Distinguished Research Professor and awarded the prestigious Creative Research Medal. He passed away in 2006 following a long battle with cancer.

McCully, who studies effects of aging and disease on muscle metabolism and functional capacity, was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education in 2007. He joined the UGA faculty in 1999 from the Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann University. He received his Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Michigan.