Kessler Foundation Secures $770,000 in Grants to Advance Leading-Edge Spinal Cord Research

Scientists propose hands-free cognitive assessment for traumatic SCI patients and develop a nationwide personal assistance services survey

East Hanover, NJ – March 28, 2024 – Kessler Foundation received two grants from The New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research that will fuel innovative research in the field of spinal cord injury (SCI). These grants will fund efforts aimed at improving the cognitive assessment of individuals with traumatic SCI and pilot-testing the first-of-its-kind Spinal Cord Injury Personal Assistance Services Survey (SCI-PASS). 

Traumatic spinal cord injury (tSCI) often leads to cognitive impairment, affecting up to 60 percent of individuals living with this condition. β€œThe challenge lies in assessing cognitive functions in people with tSCI, as many existing tests rely on upper limb function for responses, which can exclude a significant portion of the SCI population,” explained Silvana Lopes Da Costa, PhD, research scientist, Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research.

A $569,006 grant will support a study to address this gap. Dr. Costa is leading a transformative project to develop and test a hands-free eye-tracker-based cognitive assessment. Unlike traditional methods, this innovative technology enables participants to respond by fixating their eyes on specific locations on a monitor, eliminating the need for motor function.

Two Kessler Foundation scientists, Silvana Lopes Da Costa, PhD (left), and Jeanne Zanca, MPT, PhD (right), received a total of $770,000 in grants from New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research.
Two Kessler Foundation scientists, Silvana Lopes Da Costa, PhD (left), 
and Jeanne Zanca, MPT, PhD (right), received a total of $770,000 
in grants from New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research.

"Our ongoing studies have revealed the limitations of existing cognitive assessments for individuals with tSCI. This hands-free approach has shown promise in pilot studies and offers a much-needed solution to assess cognitive functions independently of motor abilities," said Dr. Costa. The outcomes of this research will not only enhance cognitive assessment for those with tSCI but also hold promise for individuals with other motor disabilities, such as traumatic brain injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and stroke.

A second grant, totaling $199,485, will support the SCI-PASS, designed for large-scale implementation in future studies. It will be developed to assess the relationship between the quality of personal assistance services and secondary complication-related outcomes in people with SCI. Personal assistance services play a vital role in the daily lives of individuals with SCI, helping them complete essential tasks to prevent and manage secondary complications. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges faced by this community, highlighting the importance of these services.

Principal investigator Jeanne Zanca, MPT, PhD, emphasized, "Existing data sources offer limited information about personal assistance service utilization, unmet needs, or satisfaction. The SCI-PASS survey will provide valuable insights into the impact of personal assistance services on secondary complications, ultimately improving the quality of care and the lives of people with SCI." Dr. Zanca is chair of the Institutional Review Board and assistant director, Center for Spinal Cord Injury Research at the Foundation.

This project will involve designing, pilot-testing, and implementing the survey to gather preliminary data on service utilization, satisfaction, and its relationship with secondary complication-related outcomes. The findings will inform future initiatives, supporting advocacy and policy efforts to enhance personal assistance services.

Funding: The New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research CSCR24IRG002 (Costa); CSCR24ERG001 (Zanca)

About the New Jersey Commission on Spinal Cord Research 
The Commission's mission is to ensure that the people of New Jersey receive the utmost attention and benefit in our nation's fight against spinal cord injury and disease through its promotion of research into the treatment and cure. The Commission was created to encourage and promote significant, original research projects in New Jersey through the funding of approved research projects at qualifying research institutions in the State. For more information visit

About Kessler Foundation
Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research. Our scientists seek to improve cognition, mobility, and long-term outcomes, including employment, for adults and children with neurological and developmental disabilities of the brain and spinal cord including traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and autism. Kessler Foundation also leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities. For more information, visit

For more information, contact:
Deb Hauss, [email protected]
Carolann Murphy, [email protected]

Stay Connected with Kessler Foundation
X (formerly known as Twitter) | Facebook | YouTube | Instagram | SoundCloud