Scientists at the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne have found a way to restore full movement in rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. This new approach to a problem scientists have been trying to solve for years involves spinal nerve stimulation to help overcome the paralysis.
Gregoire Courtine led a team of researchers working for half a decade to make rats with severe paralysis walk again. The rats’ spinal cords were cleanly cut, then researchers stimulated spinal nerve circuits with an electrical current from implanted electrodes, in addition to injections of a chemical mix.
After the treatment, the rats underwent thorough physical training. Secured in a harness so that only their back feet touched the ground, the rats were then placed on a treadmill, which produced reflexive stepping. Once they regained that reflexive movement they were placed on solid ground, still in the harness, and motivated to move their legs to reach a piece of tempting chocolate. It took only two to three weeks from the onset of training before the rats were moving on their own.
“Our rats are not only voluntarily initiating a walking gait, but they are soon sprinting, climbing up stairs and avoiding obstacles,” said Courtine.
To date, over 100 rats have regained the walking ability, to varying degrees, thanks to the treatment that produces an extensive rewiring in the brain and spinal cord.
“This kind of approach will not cure spinal cord injury, but it might someday help some patients recover more ability to move around,” Courtine continued. “Only human studies will show how much the technique might help.”
Several points must be taken into consideration before the human studies begin. First, it is unclear if this type of electrochemical kick start could have an effect on spinal cords that have been damaged for an extended period of time. Often, older spinal cord injuries have scar tissue, holes and areas where a significant number of nerve cells and fibers have died or degenerated. Another point is that very few people have the clean-break spinal cord injuries similar to the rats in the study.
What the new research does give hope to, is that this therapy may be able to “wake up” a dormant spinal column. This “wake up call” may induce the spine’s natural ability to adapt and recover from injuries, a phenomenon that is known as neuroplasticity.
Internationally, scientists are agreeing that there is promise in this study. Bryce Vissel, head of the Neurodegenerative Diseases Research Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, remarked that the study “suggests we are on the edge of a truly profound advance in modern medicine: the prospect of repairing the spinal cord after injury.”