Stroke researcher to lead South Carolina's first neural function rehabilitation research facility

February 12, 2024
Rendering of Clinical Research Center for Restoration of Neural-based Function in the Real World (RENEW).
The planned 15,000-square-foot Clinical Research Center for Restoration of Neural-based Function in the Real World will occupy the fifth and sixth floor of the new College of Health Professions D Building. Renderings by SMHa and ClarkNexsen

Steve Kautz, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Health Sciences and Research in the College of Health Professions (CHP), has been awarded a $7.9 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) federal construction grant to build the Clinical Research Center for Restoration of Neural-based Function in the Real World (RENEW). At 15,000 square feet, the RENEW center will create a state-of-the-art facility for CHP and the University’s other colleges to combine their knowledge and resources. This holistic and collaborative approach to restoring nervous system function will serve to rehabilitate how people move, sense, understand and interact with the world around them while also expanding research resources.

“We’ve put together a vision for a center that will be focused on clinical research to better understand how to restore neural-based function,” said Kautz. The vision for the center is inspired by his own boundary-spanning research, which combines neural control and biomechanics, a unique approach within his field that he learned from his mentor. The team at RENEW will work similarly, using multidisciplinary teams to make advancements in research areas that are often only approached from one perspective, while reaching rural communities that are underserved through telerehabilitation.  

The center will bring together an interdisciplinary team of neurosurgeons, neurologists, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, exercise scientists, engineers and others to work collaboratively toward decreasing disability statewide. 

Man in a suit with arms crossed over chest smiles standing in front of a fountain. 
Dr. Steve Kautz says developing a better understanding of how the nervous system is organized may help stroke patients get better results as they recover. Photo by Jonathan Coultas

“One of the things we want to do is to make sure our research will be effective at changing peoples’ lives in their real world,” said Kautz. The labs will be equipped with tools like virtual reality and augmented reality to simulate different environments that patients encounter daily to make their rehabilitation interventions more applicable. 

Kautz, a respected leader in stroke recovery research, will continue his stroke rehabilitation initiatives at the center while broadening those efforts into a statewide and national resource for the many different communities affected by neurological disabilities. 

Over the course of his 30-year career, Kautz has consistently been funded by the NIH and Department of Veterans Affairs, where he is also a senior research career scientist. After earning his Ph.D., he took a postdoctoral position at the VA to conduct stroke research. That’s where he first realized the impact he could have within the field.

“I had been studying how neurologically healthy people coordinate their two legs to walk and realized that how you coordinate two legs when trying to walk is an even more interesting question in someone who has had a stroke, and now one leg doesn’t behave the same as the other leg,” explained Kautz. “And so, a better understanding of how the nervous system is organized can be potentially used and exploited in rehabilitation to get the best results for people.” 

Rendering of Clinical Research Center for Restoration of Neural-based Function in the Real World (RENEW). 
Rending of planned changes at the MUSC College of Health Professions. A new center will be focused on clinical research to better understand how to restore neural-based function.

Kautz has long been a driving force in advancing stroke rehabilitation research, a much less developed area of stroke research, which heretofore has been mainly focused on intervening during the acute phase of trauma. His stroke rehabilitation and neural-based functional recovery research has had a substantial and enduring impact – creating a sizable knowledge base proving that functional recovery after a stroke event is possible and imperative. 

“Dr. Kautz and his team have provided more than 25,000 stroke-related research sessions to South Carolinians who otherwise would not have received these additional rehabilitation sessions,” said Randal Davis, director of strategic research initiatives for CHP. “He is tremendously dedicated to improving the lives of those in our state – and beyond.” 

Under Kautz’ leadership, the RENEW center hopes to deliver similar positive impacts for a wide range of under-researched areas that could be addressed through nervous system function, including hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognitive impairment, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, suicidality and fatigue. 

Lori McMahon 
Dr. Lori McMahon

In the history of the NIH federal construction grant program, Kautz’ grant is only the second in the country to be utilized in the building of a rehabilitation-related research facility and is the University’s first since 2010. 

“This isn't just about building a facility; MUSC continues to foster a culture of cooperation and innovation in research that changes lives,” said Lori McMahon, Ph.D., vice president for Research. “Restoring brain function is a research priority for MUSC, and we’re lucky enough to have some of the top investigators in the field here. As a neuroscientist myself, it’s exciting that we can achieve research excellence through a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach like RENEW.”

“What’s extraordinary about this facility is that it focuses on trying to recreate real-world experiences in the labs, then also provide the infrastructure to gauge and help individuals with neurological injuries in their environment in order to really see how they’re doing and recovering in the real world,” said Davis. “There’s nothing like it in the state of South Carolina, and it’s possibly one of only a handful in the country.” 

The college is now ranked at No. 3 in NIH research funding among the schools of allied health professions – up from No. 27 when Kautz was recruited in 2010. In addition to having obtained more than $60 million in research funding and collaborating with over 1,000 researchers nationally and internationally, Kautz has won a national mentoring award as well as MUSC’s Peggy Schachte Research Mentor Award for the top research mentor at MUSC. 

“The future of science is multidisciplinary,” said Kautz, a lesson he hopes to impart to his mentees. “The key is not to be so narrowly focused on your own niche that you miss out on the opportunity to work on bigger scale projects and work with people who do things differently than you. That’s where the big findings come, on the interfaces of different disciplines.”

The Interdisciplinary RENEW center is scheduled to open in summer of 2026. For more information on College of Health Professions stroke research studies, please visit this page.

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