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60-Second Mind

Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries

A paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA reports success in repairing damaged nerves in a system critical for human movement. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

We depend on the corticospinal system, a dense tract of nerve fibers that connect our brain’s motor cortex to the spinal cord, simply to walk or move our hands.

And though researchers in the last two decades have made great progress in regenerating some kinds of damaged nerves, they’ve not been able to regrow nerves in the critical corticospinal system. Until now. The breakthrough was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Scientists genetically engineered rats so that injured neurons in the motor cortex expressed receptors for a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The injured neurons recognized the growth factor in the injured area, and then “grew” or regenerated.

But will the regrown nerves actually allow movement? 

The researchers will have to test for this at a spinal cord injury site, to see if neurons will send the receptor down the axon and into the spinal cord.   If voluntary movement can be restored in larger animals first, the procedure could move on to human clinical trials, offering hope that people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries might someday be able to move again.  

—Christie Nicholson

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