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Re-Routing Spinal Cord Signals Creates Movement in Paralyzed Lab Rats

A current study published in June’s issue of the journal Science aims at finding innovative ways to reverse paralysis. A specific mixture of medications, electrical stimulation, and “willpower-based training” has allowed paralyzed lab rats to walk and even run. This is exciting and very promising news to auto accident attorneys in Clearwater like myself. Experts, however, have noted that the treatment may not be as successful in humans.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have re-routed the electrical signals that connect from the rats’ brains to their spinal cords. This procedure was possible through the use of chemical injections, electrodes and a chocolate reward that actually motivated the rats to walk voluntarily, supporting their entire mass on their hind legs.

The study’s co-author Janine Heutschi, a doctoral student at the institute, stated that “We expected that the rats would recover some degree of locomotive functions. We were, however, surprised about the extent of the recovery — paralyzed rats were able to pass obstacles and run up stairs — and the consistency with which we observed it.”

Approximately half of all human spinal cord injuries result in partial or complete paralysis. The brain and spinal cord can adjust and recover from a moderate injury through a natural process known as neuroplasticity. More serious injuries, however, can delay or even stop the recovery process, authors stated.

In a study that began five years ago at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, lab rats with damaged spinal cords were injected with chemicals known as monoamine agonists. The agonist’s job is to replace the neurotransmitters dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin, which are released from glands in the brain to aid in coordinating lower body movement.

After ten minutes, researchers electrically stimulated the spinal cords using electrodes that were implanted close to the spinal canal. This allowed the rats to begin leg movement, only after being motivated by chocolate. A robotic harness was constructed that supported the rats’ back legs and only kicked in when they lost their balance. This simulated the impression of having a normal, healthy spinal column and ultimately translated into a fourfold increase in the generation of nerve fibers throughout the brain and spine.

“Over the past 20 years, research has drifted away from getting damaged [nerve] pathways to work and now focuses on trying to recruit other pathways to work — to trick the spinal cord into creating a detour or other routes,” explained Dr. Nathaniel Tindel, an orthopedic spinal surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Chairman of neurosurgery at Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, Dr. Robert Grossman, explains that the recent experiment builds on a newly published case where a paralyzed young man regained his standing and some voluntary leg movement after he was trained on a treadmill through the use of electrical stimulation impulses.

This current study is “a significant contribution to understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the generation of movement due to spinal cord injury,” he said. Heutschi stated that clinical trials to test the treatment on humans are being planned, although they do not know what to expect from studies with human patients.

Tindel warned that the therapy techniques utilized in this research are not practical in humans due to the fact that rats have a phenomenal ability to regenerate new nerve connections, better than humans do. “It’s a pleasing model because they can get results quicker,” Tindel said, “but rats have a completely different physiological system.”

As a Clearwater auto accident lawyer, I will continue to keep you up to date on new scientific and legal developments pertaining to auto accident victims and victims of TBI. If you have been injured as a result of an auto accident, call the Florida injury law attorneys at Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA for a free consultation and case evaluation.