Senior Research Scientist, NeuRA
Conjoint Lecturer in School of Medical Sciences, University of New South Wales
Associate Director of Research, Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit, Scotland
Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow, Scotland
(02) 9399 1827
Euan McCaughey (MEng, PhD, CEng) completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2014, focusing on the use of Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (Abdominal FES) to improve respiratory function after spinal cord injury. He subsequently worked at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and Macquarie University, Sydney, before joining NeuRA in 2017.
Euan’s interest lie in undertaking clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of protocols or technologies designed to improve outcomes for those living with an illness or disability. He has a particular interest in the use of Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (Abdominal FES) to improve respiratory and bowel function, especially for people living with a spinal cord injury. He also studies the epidemiology of spinal cord injury. His expertise in the area of spinal cord injury has seen him appointed to the Editorial Board of Spinal Cord, the leading dedicated spinal cord injuries journal.
Euan is looking for ILP, Honours and PhD students for his current studies. Contact him for more details.
Bowel complications, resulting from impaired bowel function, are common for people living with a spinal cord injury (SCI). As a result, people with a SCI have high rates of bowel related illness, even compared with those with other neurological disorders. This includes high rates of abdominal pain, constipation, faecal incontinence and bloating. These problems lower the quality of life of people with a SCI and place a financial burden on the health system. A treatment that improves bowel function for people with a SCI should reduce illness, improve quality of life and lead to a large cost saving for health care providers.
Bowel problems have traditionally been managed with manual and pharmacological interventions, such as digital rectal stimulation, enemas, and suppositories. These solutions are usually only partially effective, highlighting the need for improved interventions. The abdominal muscles are one of the major muscle groups used during defecation. Training the abdominal muscles should improve bowel function by increasing abdominal pressure. During our previous Abdominal FES research with people with a SCI, we observed that Abdominal FES appeared to lead to more consistent and effective bowel motion. However, this evidence remains anecdotal. As such, we are going to undertake a large randomised controlled trial to investigate the effectiveness of Abdominal FES to improve the bowel function of people with a SCI. This study will make use of a novel measurement system (SmartPill, Medtronic) that can be swallowed to measure whole gut and colonic transit time. We will also assess whether Abdominal FES can change constipation-related quality of life and the use of laxatives and manual procedures, as well as the frequency of defecation and the time taken. A positive outcome from this study is likely to lead to the rapid clinical translation of this technology for people living with a SCI.
Spinal cord injury (SCI) results in the loss of function to not only voluntary motor control, but also to the regulatory systems that control bodily processes. Orthostatic (postural) hypotension (OH) is a common clinical feature in SCI patients, affecting up to 73% of patients with cervical spine and upper thoracic spine injuries during mobilisation and postural changes. This often results in symptoms of dizziness, light-headedness, fatigue and confusion, in turn limiting individual participation in physical rehabilitation and restricting progress towards regaining function and independence.
Therapeutic interventions are centred around ameliorating symptoms of OH; however, options for patients remain limited. Non-pharmacological treatments have had little success at treating hypotension in the long-term, while pharmacological interventions are used only when necessary as they may contribute to hypertension and even worsen episodes of autonomic dysreflexia, a life-threatening condition.
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is one of the only interventions that has been shown to display some benefit in improving OH. Recently, stimulation of the lower limbs has been shown to acutely increase blood pressure in patients with SCI. Our recent projects have involved the use of FES applied over the abdominal muscles, termed abdominal FES, for SCI patients at risk of respiratory complications with promising results. As this same population is at risk of orthostatic hypotension, this study aims to determine whether abdominal stimulation can also be used to help this condition.
Based on our previous research, we believe that abdominal FES will increase blood pressure acutely during an orthostatic challenge in individuals with acute spinal cord injury, allowing for a longer time spent in a standing position. This will facilitate more effective rehabilitation, therefore improving quality of life and decreasing associated medical complications.
While tetraplegia is commonly associated with paralysis of all four limbs, paralysis also affects the major respiratory muscles, namely the diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles. The reduction in respiratory function results in approximately 40% of tetraplegic patients requiring mechanical ventilation in the acute stage (first six weeks) of injury to support respiration. The use of mechanical ventilation increases lifelong morbidity and mortality, delays rehabilitation, results in longer hospital stays and costs the health care provider an additional $2,000 per patient per day.
Surface electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), can contract the abdominal muscles, even when paralysed. We have shown that surface FES of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal FES, improves respiratory function in tetraplegia, and respiratory function is a known predictor of mechanical ventilation time. Dr McCaughey’s pilot work also shows that eight weeks of abdominal FES is a feasible method to reduce mechanical ventilation time in acute tetraplegia.
Despite these positive results, a lack of data from randomised control trials, and lack of a standard Abdominal FES protocol, has prevented this technology from being adopted as a standard clinical treatment.
This project will provide the first information on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of Abdominal FES to reduce mechanical ventilation duration in tetraplegia. In addition, it will provide detailed information about respiratory function and its impact on quality of life in tetraplegia.
This is an international collaboration brings together leading research and medical teams from: Neuroscience Research Australia, the Prince of Wales Hospital, Royal North Shore Hospital, Austin Health and Fiona Stanley Hospital in Australia; The Indian Spinal Cord Injury Centre and the Christian Medical College, Vellore, in India; The Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit and the University of Glasgow in Scotland; Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, and the University of Alberta and McMaster University in Canada.
There are currently over 20,000 people living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in Australia. Bowel and bladder problems, mainly in the form of constipation and urinary incontinence, affect more than half of these people. These problems have traditionally been managed using a combination of manual and pharmacological interventions. However, such solutions are usually only partially effective. Therefore, a non-invasive method of improving bowel and bladder function for people with MS is urgently needed.
The abdominal muscles play a major role during defecation and urination. Surface electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (Abdominal FES), has been shown to improve bowel function after spinal cord injury, with a case study suggesting this technique may also improve bowel function in MS. There is also limited evidence that Abdominal FES can improve bladder control.
We are currently undertaking the first significant study to investigate the effectiveness of Abdominal FES to improve the bowel and bladder function of people with MS. By making use of the most advanced motility testing system currently available, we hope to be able to definitively assess whether Abdominal FES could be a useful treatment solution for people with MS.
Approximately 33% of critically ill patients require mechanical ventilation to support respiration. During this time the major respiratory muscles, namely the diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles, weaken. This vicious cycle leads to difficulty in separating patients from mechanical ventilation, increased mortality, and more readmissions to intensive care. Interventions that maintain respiratory muscle strength and reduce atrophy during mechanical ventilation are likely to reduce ventilation duration, complications and costs, and improve quality of life.
The abdominal muscles are the primary muscle group used during forced exhalation. We have shown that surface Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal FES, can improve respiratory function and assist weaning from mechanical ventilation in spinal cord injury. We hypothesise that Abdominal FES in critically ill patients will reduce diaphragm and abdominal muscle atrophy, with the long term goal of this project to demonstrate reduced mechanical ventilation duration.
We are currently conducting a pilot study at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney, to investigate whether Abdominal FES is a feasible technique for reducing mechanical ventilation duration in critical illness. This work is being supported by our American project partners, Liberate Medical.
While tetraplegia is often characterized by paralysis of all four limbs, paralysis also affects the major respiratory muscles, namely the diaphragm and abdominal and intercostal muscles. This reduces respiratory function, with associated respiratory complications, such as pneumonia and atelectasis. Such complications are a leading cause of illness and death for the tetraplegic population. Up to 68% of patients with tetraplegia have a respiratory complication in the first 6 weeks (i.e. the acute stage) of injury. A reduction in respiratory complications in acute tetraplegia would decrease illness and death, reduce rehabilitation time, improve quality of life, and result in a large cost saving for global health systems.
Surface electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), can contract the abdominal muscles, even when paralysed. We have shown that the repeated application of Abdominal FES improves the respiratory function of people with tetraplegia. However, while respiratory function is a predictor of respiratory complications in tetraplegia, evidence that Abdominal FES reduces respiratory complications is only anecdotal. We will undertake the first prospective, multi-centre, randomised placebo controlled trial, to determine whether Abdominal FES reduces respiratory complications in acute tetraplegia.
Definitive evidence of the effectiveness of Abdominal FES to reduce respiratory complications in tetraplegia will drive the rapid worldwide translation of this low cost and easily applied technology for this vulnerable patient group. This will decrease illness and death, reduce rehabilitation time, improve quality of life, and result in a large cost saving for global health systems.
This international collaboration brings together leading research and medical teams from: Neuroscience Research Australia, the Prince of Wales Hospital, and the Royal North Shore Hospital in Australia; The Indian Spinal Cord Injury Centre; Chang Mai University Hospital in Thailand and The Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit and the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
Respiratory complications are the major cause of death for people with spinal cord injuries. People with a high level spinal cord injury are 150 times more likely to die from pneumonia than the general population. This is because after high level spinal cord injury, people have a reduced ability to cough and to clear secretions from the lungs. The major group of muscles that produce a cough are the abdominal muscles. If the abdominal muscles are paralysed after spinal cord injury then the strength of the cough will be severely reduced. In our lab, we are looking at ways to improve cough in people with spinal cord injury by using surface functional electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles. We have shown that this type of stimulation can improve cough significantly. We are now looking for ways to further improve cough through muscle training as well as ways to develop a portable stimulator that would allow independent activation of a cough.
After cervical spinal cord injury (SCI), the respiratory muscles are partly or completely paralysed. This has two major clinical consequences: a decreased ability to get air into the lungs and a decreased ability to cough and remove secretions. This results in a lifetime of recurrent respiratory tract infections (2/year/person) that often progress to pneumonia with frequent and extended hospital admissions. People with cervical SCI are 150 times more likely to die from respiratory complications than the general population, as many as 28% die within the first year after injury. For those that survive the first year, a cervical SCI has a lifetime cost of $9.5million, a large proportion of which is attributed to respiratory-related complications. A recent longitudinal study of people with cervical SCI showed that respiratory muscle weakness is associated with incidental pneumonia. Respiratory muscle weakness also causes dyspnoea (breathlessness) and sleep-disordered breathing, which is 4-10 times more prevalent in people with SCI than the able-bodied population. Therefore, there is an urgent need to identify a simple and cost-effective treatment for respiratory muscles weakness to prevent respiratory complications after SCI, improve quality of life and reduce the burden on the healthcare system.
Our primary aim is to determine definitively the effectiveness of training on respiratory muscle strength, respiratory physiology and health outcomes. To do this we will conduct a randomised controlled trial 2 times bigger than the largest previous study, of respiratory muscle resistive load training in individuals with acute and chronic cervical SCI. The project will provide critical new knowledge about the efficacy of a simple and inexpensive respiratory muscle training regime, which can be applied immediately in the hospital and community, to minimise respiratory morbidity in people with SCI. This project also provides a unique opportunity to investigate other consequential effects of long-term respiratory muscle training that have never been studied in people with SCI. These include effects on cough efficacy, sleep-disordered breathing, breathlessness, respiratory morbidity, respiratory health and neural drive to the diaphragm, as well as quality of life.
TEODORA BOJANIC ILP Student
DR RACHEL MCBAIN Postdoctoral fellow
Our compliance rates demonstrate the feasibility of using abdominal FES with critically ill mechanically ventilated patients. While abdominal FES did not lead to differences in abdominal muscle or diaphragm thickness, it may be an effective method to reduce ventilation duration and ICU length of stay in this patient group. A fully powered study into this effect is warranted.
Abdominal functional electrical stimulation (abdominal FES) is the application of a train of electrical pulses to the abdominal muscles, causing them to contract. Abdominal FES has been used as a neuroprosthesis to acutely augment respiratory function and as a rehabilitation tool to achieve a chronic increase in respiratory function after abdominal FES training, primarily focusing on patients with spinal cord injury (SCI). This study aimed to review the evidence surrounding the use of abdominal FES to improve respiratory function in both an acute and chronic manner after SCI. This systematic review suggests that abdominal FES is an effective technique for improving respiratory function in both an acute and chronic manner after SCI. However, further randomised controlled trials, with larger participant numbers and standardised protocols, are needed to fully establish the clinical efficacy of this technique.
The results of this study indicate that AFES is a clinically feasible technique for acute ventilator dependent tetraplegic patients and that this intervention may improve respiratory function and enable faster weaning from mechanical ventilation.