A new study by two Swiss surgeons shows that paralyzed rats treated with a neuroregeneration regimen and physical therapy can regain motor skills, according to Science magazine. The discovery is not being hailed as a miracle cure for paralyzed humans, but scientist are tentatively entertaining the possibility that the same techniques could be used on people. The first human tries are slated to take place within a few years, at which point scientist will be able observe firsthand how the treatment affects humans. If successful, the trials could provide hope to the thousands of Americans who have suffered from spinal injuries.
According to press sources, 250,000 American suffer from spinal cord injuries, and over half of those people are paraplegic, meaning they cannot move their legs or lower body and are usually confined to wheelchairs. The largest demographic of such injuries is among young men, likely because this group engages in the post risky physical activities. However, many of these injuries are also incurred because of circumstances beyond the victims’ control, such as car accidents and worksite injures.
The study reportedly began after scientists paralyzed 10 rats in ways similar to the paralysis suffered by many humans. The rats’ spinal cords were cut at two separate places, interrupting communication between the brain and body, but not completely severed. The rats were given a week to recover, then were put on is a rigorous regenerative program that lasted for half an hour a day.
The therapy that the rats received apparently a two-step treatment meant to encourage their spinal cords to re-grow around the injured areas. The rats’ spinal columns were treated with neurotransmitters, then electrocuted. The rats were then encouraged to attempt to move voluntarily through the use of treats such as chocolate. With the help of a robotic device, the rats apparently went from experiencing only involuntary movements to being able to control their own bodies again.
The rats that did the best were apparently the ones that received the chemical and electrical treatment as well as movement training in ‘overground’ situations rather than a treadmill. These rats, the study claims, showed neuron growth in the injured parts of their spinal cords: new tendrils formed and reached across the wounds, connecting to the other part of the spine to allow the brain and muscles to communicate again. This incredible regenerative phenomenon is what has made the study such as sensation.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Gregoire Courtine, one of the study co-authors and a spinal cord repair research scientist at Switzerlands’ Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. He indicated that the rats had been able to regenerate so much motor control that they could run, dart, and even sprint up staircases. And while he is hopeful that the same neuroregeneration techniques will help human patients, he reminded the public that “this is not an intervention that will cure spinal cord injury; we need to be realistic here.” However, he concedes, “what is exciting here is that it’s a different approach, and the results are unprecedented.”