Scientists “reverse” long-term spinal cord injuries in animals

A team of scientists believe that many of the long-term effects of spinal cord injury could be “reversible” after curing symptoms in animals.

The study, published in Nature Communications, claims that a ground-breaking new treatment could help “reawaken” certain types of nerve cells that can regenerate damaged cells in the spinal cord.

In experiments conducted on rats whose spinal cords were severed at the second cervical vertebrae, the researchers found that the treatment resulted in complete diaphragm and partial forelimb function.

Encouragingly, the recuperative effects of the treatment were “fully maintained” six months after therapy concluded.

Commenting on the findings, senior author Jerry Silver, professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said: “For the first time we have permanently restored both breathing and some arm function in a form of high cervical, chronic spinal cord injury-induced paralysis. The complete recovery, especially of breathing, occurs rapidly after a near lifetime of paralysis in a rodent model.”

Interestingly, the team added that animals treated immediately after spinal cord injury responded less positively to treatment than animals treated long after the injury.

The researchers said after just one week of treatment, rats with long-term spinal injuries began to regrow nerve extensions that had been “silent” for many months.

In total, 70 per cent of the animals treated began to use their forelimbs to move and explore their environment. Likewise, 60 per cent of animals had improved diaphragm function after just one week, increasing to all animals after two weeks.

“Our data illustrate the relative ease with which an essential motor system can regain functionality months to years after severe spinal cord injury,” said Dr Silver.

“The treatment regimen in our study is relevant to multiple types of chronic incomplete spinal traumas, and we are hopeful it may also help restore motor function following spinal cord injury in humans.”