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Medical Student Stella Barth Presents Research on Spinal Cord Injury at National Conferences

February 25, 2022

Stella Barth, a first-year medical student in the Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health (PURCH) track, has been involved in the field of neuroscience for a decade and a half.

Last Fall, she was invited to present her research findings on spinal cord injuries at two national conferences.

It All Started With Asking Questions

How does the human brain function in health? How can you approach treatment when those functions are interrupted by disease or injury?

Barth says those are the questions she explored at Harvard College where she earned a bachelor's degree in Neurobiology in 2010.

She taught middle/high school science for several years—keeping up with advances in neuroscience research through summer professional development opportunities.

Then she became a clinical research coordinator at the INSPIRE Lab, a spinal cord injury research lab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, with principal investigator Dr. Randy Trumbower. For the three years prior to medical school, she worked closely with numerous patients, getting to know each very well and learning about their lives pre vs. post injury.

Her Research In Her Own Words

Barth explains the two posters she presented at two national conference in November 2021.

Integrity Analysis of a Randomized Clinical Trial to Test the Effects of Therapeutic Intermittent Hypoxia in Able-Bodied Adults

—Selected for the Neurological Rehabilitation Research Spotlight

Presented at the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

This talk was about the potential for better placebo-controlled, double-blinded research studies in rehabilitation medicine. Most rehabilitation medicine trials do not report a properly blinded placebo-controlled arm to test a new treatment against the standard of care or the no-treatment option. Here, I evaluated how well our intervention could be blinded from participants. The results revealed that our intervention of acute intermittent hypoxia could be blinded since participants were no better at guessing their treatment allocation vs. random chance. This is important because we need to understand if our treatments actually help our patients in an unbiased way.

Enhanced recovery of walking speed with combined adenosine A2A receptor inhibition and daily acute intermittent hypoxia in persons with chronic incomplete SCI

Presented at the Society for Neuroscience

I talked about the preliminary results of a NIH-funded study that combined caffeine and acute intermittent hypoxia to enhance walking recovery in people with spinal cord injury. The variation in walking improvement that we saw was likely due to multiple different factors from genetic polymorphisms to the heterogeneity of the participants’ injuries. The goal is to better personalize dosages and timing of combinatorial treatments that can piggyback off each other based on someone’s genetic profile and individual biomarkers, so that the benefits of treatment are achieved sooner and last longer for patients. Gains in mobility in a lab can translate to meaningful functional gains in independence at home and in the community, and I’m excited to implement promising new treatments as a practicing physician.

Still Seeking Answers

Barth's professional goal is to become a practicing clinician scientist in neurology or physical medicine and rehabilitation.

She says PURCH mentors and community faculty have taught her so much about social determinants of health at the both the individual and community levels. And, understanding the barriers people living with a chronic neurological disease or disorder need to navigate to access care can make her a stronger advocate as a physician.


Former science teacher pursues medicine through Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health track