Dystonia—a movement disorder—can cause pain and discomfort, but it can also cause daily disruptions to life. As a neurologist for the VA and a member of the Dystonia Coalition, Dr. Sarah Pirio Richardson is committed to advancing research in the areas of non-invasive neurostimulation and treatment for dystonia. For years, she has enrolled participants into the international coalition’s biorepository to determine causes and potential therapies for dystonia. She has studied treatments, including magnetic techniques and medication, and has observed her patients’ changes over time. Working specifically on Parkinson’s, tremors, balance difficulties, Tourette’s and other abnormal body movements, her current clinical trial seeks to determine how the brain responds to change, and utilizes TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)—a non-invasive technique to study how the brain behaves in healthy participants and when a patient is experiencing abnormal movements.

Throughout the course of her research, Dr. Pirio Richardson is studying the underlying causes associated with dystonia and inducing therapeutic effects to help alleviate pain and difficulties associated with dystonia. There is a major disconnect between basic studies in cells or animals that have never translated into therapy for humans. Her research breaks through that disconnect and, through non-invasive neurostimulation, provides an opportunity to ask questions of patients and develop a greater understanding of dystonia.

Her previous dystonia trial involved both newly diagnosed and chronic patients, and research was centered on how the disease changes over time and how to effectively administer therapy. Rather than rely on medication or invasive procedures, the trial examined the effectiveness of TMS. By administering TMS therapy, each patient received 15-minute treatments of magnetic pulses to areas of the brain that dictate movement. Through her research, she has witnessed both immediate and long-term change that suggests that TMS treatment can either stimulate or decrease those pathways to the brain associated with dystonia movements, which will hopefully make it a viable and effective treatment to decrease the pain and disruption caused by dystonia.

As veterans are currently underrepresented in the biorepository study through the Dystonia Coalition, she is seeking to bring veterans into the study. With the increase in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic brain injury among the veteran population, Dr. Pirio Richardson’s work will be vital in understanding the differences in dystonia in the veteran and non-veteran population. There is little known about the differences in dystonia among the veteran population, but this trial could provide a great deal of information, as there are differences in medication use patterns in the veteran population, and veterans are at a higher risk for PTSD.

She hopes her research will further advance medical care and non-invasive therapy for all with dystonia in both the general and the veteran population.


Dr. Sarah Pirio Richardson, M.D. is a Neurologist at the New Mexico VA Healthcare System, and an Associate Professor at UNM Health Sciences Center.