Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Walking and running again after spinal cord injury

Date:
May 31, 2012
Source:
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Summary:
Rats with spinal cord injuries and severe paralysis are now walking (and running). New results show that a severed section of the spinal cord can make a comeback when its own innate intelligence and regenerative capacity -- what lead author calls the "spinal brain" -- is awakened.

Test subject takes first steps up stairs after neurorehabilitation with a combination of robotic harness and electrical-chemical stimulation.
Credit: EPFL/Grégoire Courtine

Rats with spinal cord injuries and severe paralysis are now walking (and running) thanks to researchers at EPFL. Published in the June 1, 2012 issue of Science, the results show that a severed section of the spinal cord can make a comeback when its own innate intelligence and regenerative capacity is awakened. The study, begun five years ago at the University of Zurich, points to a profound change in our understanding of the central nervous system. According to lead author Grégoire Courtine, it is yet unclear if similar rehabilitation techniques could work for humans, but the observed nerve growth hints at new methods for treating paralysis.

"After a couple of weeks of neurorehabilitation with a combination of a robotic harness and electrical-chemical stimulation, our rats are not only voluntarily initiating a walking gait, but they are soon sprinting, climbing up stairs and avoiding obstacles when stimulated," explains Courtine, who holds the International Paraplegic Foundation (IRP) Chair in Spinal Cord Repair at EPFL.

Waking up the spinal cord

It is well known that the brain and spinal cord can adapt and recover from moderate injury, a quality known as neuroplasticity. But until now the spinal cord expressed so little plasticity after severe injury that recovery was impossible. Courtine's research proves 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.

To do this, Courtine and his team injected a chemical solution of monoamine agonists into the rats. These chemicals trigger cell responses by binding to specific dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin receptors located on the spinal neurons. This cocktail replaces neurotransmitters released by brainstem pathways in healthy subjects and acts to excite neurons and ready them to coordinate lower body movement when the time is right.

Five to 10 minutes after the injection, the scientists electrically stimulated the spinal cord with electrodes implanted in the outermost layer of the spinal canal, called the epidural space. "This localized epidural stimulation sends continuous electrical signals through nerve fibers to the chemically excited neurons that control leg movement. All that is left was to initiate that movement," explains Rubia van den Brand, contributing author to the study.

The innate intelligence of the spinal column

In 2009, Courtine already reported on restoring movement, albeit involuntary. He discovered that a stimulated rat spinal column -- physically isolated from the brain from the lesion down -- developed in a surprising way: It started taking over the task of modulating leg movement, allowing previously paralyzed animals to walk over treadmills. These experiments revealed that the movement of the treadmill created sensory feedback that initiated walking -- the innate intelligence of the spinal column took over, and walking essentially occurred without any input from the rat's actual brain. This surprised the researchers and led them to believe that only a very weak signal from the brain was needed for the animals to initiate movement of their own volition.

To test this theory, Courtine replaced the treadmill with a device that vertically supported the subjects, a mechanical harness did not facilitate forward movement and only came into play when they lost balance, giving them the impression of having a healthy and working spinal column. This encouraged the rats to will themselves toward a chocolate reward on the other end of the platform. "What they deemed willpower-based training translated into a fourfold increase in nerve fibers throughout the brain and spine -- a regrowth that proves the tremendous potential for neuroplasticity even after severe central nervous system injury," says Janine Heutschi, co-author in the study.

First human rehabilitation on the horizon

Courtine calls this regrowth "new ontogeny," a sort of duplication of an infant's growth phase. The researchers found that the newly formed fibers bypassed the original spinal lesion and allowed signals from the brain to reach the electrochemically-awakened spine. And the signal was sufficiently strong to initiate movement over ground -- without the treadmill -- meaning the rats began to walk voluntarily towards the reward, entirely supporting their own weight with their hind legs.

"This is the world-cup of neurorehabilitation," exclaims Courtine. "Our rats have become athletes when just weeks before they were completely paralyzed. I am talking about 100% recuperation of voluntary movement."

In principle, the radical reaction of the rat spinal cord to treatment offers reason to believe that people with spinal cord injury will soon have some options on the horizon. Courtine is optimistic that human, phase-two trials will begin in a year or two at Balgrist University Hospital Spinal Cord Injury Centre in Zurich, Switzerland. Meanwhile, researchers at EPFL are coordinating a nine million Euro project called NeuWalk that aims at designing a fully operative spinal neuroprosthetic system, much like the one used here with rats, for implanting into humans.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. R. van den Brand, J. Heutschi, Q. Barraud, J. DiGiovanna, K. Bartholdi, M. Huerlimann, L. Friedli, I. Vollenweider, E. M. Moraud, S. Duis, N. Dominici, S. Micera, P. Musienko, G. Courtine. Restoring Voluntary Control of Locomotion after Paralyzing Spinal Cord Injury. Science, 2012; 336 (6085): 1182 DOI: 10.1126/science.1217416

Cite This Page:

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. "Walking and running again after spinal cord injury." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 May 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120531145714.htm>.
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2012, May 31). Walking and running again after spinal cord injury. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120531145714.htm
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. "Walking and running again after spinal cord injury." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120531145714.htm (accessed July 22, 2014).

Share This




More Health & Medicine News

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Gilead's $1000-a-Pill Drug Could Cure Hep C in HIV-Positive People

Gilead's $1000-a-Pill Drug Could Cure Hep C in HIV-Positive People

TheStreet (July 21, 2014) — New research shows Gilead Science's drug Sovaldi helps in curing hepatitis C in those who suffer from HIV. In a medical study, the combination of Gilead's Hep C drug with anti-viral drug Ribavirin cured 76% of HIV-positive patients suffering from the most common hepatitis C strain. Hepatitis C and related complications have been a top cause of death in HIV-positive patients. Typical medication used to treat the disease, including interferon proteins, tended to react badly with HIV drugs. However, Sovaldi's %1,000-a-pill price tag could limit the number of patients able to access the treatment. TheStreet's Keris Lahiff reports from New York. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com
$23.6 Billion Awarded To Widow In Smoking Lawsuit

$23.6 Billion Awarded To Widow In Smoking Lawsuit

Newsy (July 20, 2014) — Cynthia Robinson claims R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company hid the health and addiction risks of its products, leading to the death of her husband in 1996. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Tooth Plaque Provides Insight Into Diets Of Ancient People

Tooth Plaque Provides Insight Into Diets Of Ancient People

Newsy (July 19, 2014) — Research on plaque from ancient teeth shows that our prehistoric ancestor's had a detailed understanding of plants long before developing agriculture. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Contaminated Water Kills 3 Babies in South African Town

Contaminated Water Kills 3 Babies in South African Town

AFP (July 18, 2014) — Contaminated water in South Africa's northwestern town of Bloemhof kills three babies and hospitalises over 500 people. The incident highlights growing fears over water safety in South Africa. Duration: 02:22 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins