Nov. 13, 1998 Purdue University researchers have for the first time restored electrical nerve impulses in the severed spinal cord of a mammal.
The scientists conducted their experiments on isolated spinal cords removed from adult guinea pigs. Researchers fused the cut nerve fibers using a polymer called PEG. Electrical impulses were restored in all of the guinea pig cords used in the study. The repaired spinal cords transmitted between 5 percent and 58 percent of pre-cut impulses.
Significant numbers, but not all, of the nerve fibers within the cut spinal cords were reconnected. Researchers demonstrated this by passing special dyes through the repaired nerve fibers.
"If you have even 5 percent of the nerve fibers carrying nerve impulses, you'll get significantly more than 5 percent back in terms of restored behavior," says Richard B. Borgens, professor of developmental anatomy at Purdue. He and his colleague, assistant professor Dr. Riyi Shi, both of Purdue's Center for Paralysis Research in the School of Veterinary Medicine, will report their findings Thursday (11/12) in Long Beach, Calif., at the 18th annual meeting of the Society for Physical Regulation in Biology and Medicine. Borgens also has submitted a paper on the research to the Journal of Neurotrauma.
"This technique may be a revolutionary new way of dealing with injuries to the nervous system," Borgens says. "It's too soon to know whether it would help patients with old injuries, but it is likely to be useful in treating recent injuries."
Shi and Borgens now are testing the procedure in live animals. They plan to conduct clinical trials in natural cases of paraplegia in dogs early in 1999, but human clinical trials are at least two years away.
The isolated spinal cords remain viable for about 36 hours after removal. Borgens says the results of studies in live animals will shed more light on how permanent the new technique might be.
Borgens and Shi applied polyethylene glycol, or PEG -- a nontoxic, water-soluble polymer used in medicine and cosmetics -- across the region of the guinea pig's spinal cord that had been severed but gently pressed back together. PEG was applied for two minutes, then removed. The polymer "fused" the membranes of a significant number of nerve cells together, making them continuous once again.
Using an apparatus and procedure that Shi designed, the researchers then applied a small electrical current to one end of the cord to stimulate nerve impulses to travel towards the other end. Between five and 15 minutes after the PEG application, nerve fibers were repaired, allowing some impulses to reach the other end of the severed cord in 100 percent of the cases.
"The technique is called fusion technology," Borgens explains. He compares the procedure to repairing a garden hose -- the rubber is the cell membrane and the water inside is the salty material, called cytoplasm, found inside all cells. "If we cut the hose and just hold the two ends tightly together, they're not going to reconnect or function as a hose. But if we add this special molecule, PEG, the 'rubber' melts a tiny bit on each side and literally fuses the 'hose' back together."
Borgens says the technique also can repair crushed nerve cells that develop holes in their membranes.
"In most spinal cord injuries in animals and in people, the spinal cord is not completely severed, as we have done in these first experiments," he says. "The cord is more likely to be crushed, and the nerve fibers develop holes in their membranes, which ultimately leads to separation of the nerve fiber within 24 to 72 hours."
Nerve cells consist of a cell body and trailing tail called an axon, which can extend from the spinal cord to the muscles in the leg, for example.
In mammals, if nerve fibers outside the brain and spinal cord are damaged, they can regenerate and may eventually reach their original target muscle to restore some function. Spinal cord and brain nerve axons, however, do not regenerate in mammals, and once separated from the cell body, they die. The result is paralysis.
Borgens and his colleagues at the Center for Paralysis Research have done extensive work in producing other methods to treat naturally paralyzed dogs with spinal cord injuries, and some methods have moved to tests in human spinal cord injuries.
Borgens' research is supported in part by the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.
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