Photo: Flickr/Army Medicine
There’s an incredible new breakthrough in the treatment of spinal cord injuries and paralysis.Scientists in Switzerland treated paralysed rats through a combination of chemical, electrical, and physical stimulation. They found that the paralysed rats who underwent treatment could walk again — some could even run.
In the past, scientists have individually tested chemical, electrical, and physical training therapies on paralysed humans — but until now they have never tested a combination of all three technologies at once.
Neuroscientist Gregoire Courtine, the study’s lead author, told ABC News that the technique “will not make miracles” and it will not completely cure a spinal cord injury, but that it does offer “new therapeutic avenues for these very traumatic injuries” through the combination of existing therapies.
First the researchers severed halfway through the spinal cords of a group of rats in two areas separated by an inch on opposite sides of the cord. This left some tissue intact but no direct nerve connections so that the rats could not move their hind legs.
A week later the rats were placed on a program of chemical injections, electric stimulations to the spinal cords, and physical therapy. (A few rats served as a control group and did not receive treatment.)
Here’s what the treatment entailed:
- The rats received an injection of chemicals that are known to help nerve cells communicate better.
- They were also given electrical stimulation designed to mimic the signals the brain sends to move the legs.
- The rats wore a harness that suspended them upright but did not propel them forward and then entered a treadmill, trying to move toward a piece of cheese nearby.
- The electrical stimulation provoked a reflex in their legs that made each leg take a step while in the harness on the treadmill.
- After three weeks of treadmill training, most of the rats who received treatment moved to a tiny runway as they continued to sit in the harness and receive electrical stimulation.
- Within a few more weeks, these runway rats were “sprinting” up stairs in their harnesses to capture a bit of chocolate at the end of the course. They had regained control of the movements in their legs.
The treadmill rats still couldn’t walk unaided, but they had experienced a “nearly complete” regrowth of spinal nerve fibres that re-established the severed connections between brain and hind legs. The study noted that the untreated and treadmill-only rodents did not regain voluntary movement in their paralysed legs.
Neuroscientist Naomi Kleitman of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) told National Geographic that studies “like this one show it’s worth trying” to design treatments for severely paralysed people. However, other neurologists cautioned that much more research is needed before the techniques can be tested in humans.
The research is exciting for the treatment of human paralysis because the methods used in this study — electrical stimulation, chemical stimulation, and physical therapy — are already being tested on humans individually, but have never been tried before in combination.
In 2011, electrical stimulation of the spinal cord helped Rob Summers, a paralysed 25-year-old, move his legs, feet, and toes in addition to restoring some body functions.
If electrical stimulation enabled Rob Summers to progress from being paralysed below the neck to being able to bear the full weight of his body for several minutes, the combination of multiple therapies opens the door for the possibility that a paralysed person may regain the ability to walk.
And that would truly change the game.
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