Public Release: 

New painless myogrpahy technique aids neuromuscular disease research

Northeastern Univeristy profs develop non-invasive test for collecting accurate muscle data

Northeastern University

(05-27-04) BOSTON, Mass. -- There are more than 200 known neuromuscular diseases affecting over 400,000 people in the United States alone. Among these are "Lou Gehrig's Disease" (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), the inflammatory muscle diseases, and muscular dystrophy, which Jerry Lewis' annual Labor Day telethons have made known to many. And, if the telethons tell us anything (Lewis has done over 50), it's that finding suitable treatments for neuromuscular disease hasn't been easy.

Part of the problem lies in the difficulty clinical researchers face in collecting accurate data on skeletal muscle. This is partly due to the subjective nature of existing non-invasive assessments of disease status and partly to the painfully invasive character of electromyography (EMG) and biopsy, the standard objective tools. Two Northeastern University professors have recently developed an objective, but non-invasive and painless technique based on long known but previously overlooked properties of muscle tissue. The new technique, called "electrical impedance myography" (or EIM), was developed by professors Ronald Aaron and Carl Shiffman of Northeastern's Physics department, and it is now being studied at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in collaboration with Seward B. Rutkove, M.D., chief of the division of neuromuscular disease.

Skeletal muscle consists of tightly bundled, basically cylindrical fibers, so that electrical currents flowing perpendicular to the fibers must cross many more cell membranes than those flowing parallel to them. EIM takes advantage of this directional dependence, using very weak high frequency currents, well out of the range that can affect the nervous system. In particular, it measures the time delay between oscillations of the current and oscillations of the voltage at the skin surface (the "phase-shift"). This serves as a direct indicator of the health of the underlying muscle cells membranes.

"The goal of our research on EIM is to refine it as a test that can assist in the treatment of neuromuscular disease," said Aaron. "Our early results show that it will be particularly useful in drug trials and generally in following the course of disease in individual subjects, but also in rehabilitation programs. Hopefully, it will also prove to be useful in diagnosis."

With the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health, EIM is currently being tested in a clinical setting:

  • To establish the range of normal values and to confirm the reproducibility of the technique under clinical conditions, via tests on a large sampling of healthy subjects of both sexes and various ages;
  • To evaluate patients with different disease and disuse states, to determine EIM patterns associated with myopathic and neuropathic diseases and to compare the sensitivity and specificity of these patterns as diagnostic tools;
  • As a continuation of research on EIM as a tool for assessing disease progression and remission.

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Northeastern University, located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, is a world leader in cooperative education and recognized for its expert faculty and first-rate academic and research facilities. Through co-op, Northeastern undergraduates alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, giving them nearly two years of professional experience upon graduation. The majority of Northeastern graduates receive a job offer from a co-op employer. Cited for excellence two years running by U.S. News & World Report, Northeastern was named a top college in the northeast by the Princeton Review 2003/04. In addition, Northeastern's career services was awarded top honors by Kaplan Newsweek's "Unofficial Insiders Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges and Universities," 2003 edition. For more information, please visit http://www.northeastern.edu.

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