(MedicalXpress)- 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—what lead author Grégoire Courtine of EPFL calls the "spinal brain"—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. 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," explains Courtine, who holds the International Paraplegic Foundation (IRP) Chair in Spinal Cord Repair at EPFL.
Neuroplasticity after severe injury
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.