In a previous study, the team demonstrated that rats with a spinal cord injury or severe paralysis were able to walk again once the ‘spinal brain’ – the spinal cord’s innate intelligence and regenerative capacity – had been awakened.
Although it is widely known that the brain and spinal cord can often adapt and show some recovery following moderate injury – a quality known as neuroplasticity – the level of plasticity is very limited and outcomes after more significant injury are extremely disappointing. However, this study highlighted that, under certain conditions, plasticity and recovery can take place in these severe cases – but only if the dormant spinal column is first woken up.
The team was able to do this by injecting a chemical solution into the rats, followed by electrical stimulation to the spinal cord with electrodes implanted in the outermost layer of the spinal canal, called the epidural space. The rats were then placed in a robotic harness and were shown a treat to walk towards.
The study has since been repeated in rats with bruised spines, which more closely resembles trauma in human patients, and after a few weeks they were able to walk with no assistance.
The team now believes that the technique could help people who have been immobile for up to two years and are planning to administer electrical stimulation in five patients who have limited leg movement in the coming months.
Dr Mark Bacon, Director of Research at Spinal Research, said: “It gives enormous hope.
“In the past it was seen as folly to think we might be able to restore function and I think that’s no longer the case, but it’s about translating these robust effects in animal models to the clinic safely.
“The group previously demonstrated promising outcomes in a model of injury that was designed to prove the principle. They have now shown similar effects in a model that more realistically represents a real world human injury.”
For further information on the study, please click here.