A new treatment is giving hope that paralysis from spinal cord damage could one day be reversible. Researchers from Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum were able to get paralyzed mice to walk again after stimulating their brains to produce a particular protein, which was then spread to other areas of the nervous system.
Spinal cord damage is extremely difficult to treat because it can sever the nerves running from the brain to other parts of the body like the limbs, which leaves people paralyzed. The fibers in the spinal cord can’t repair themselves, so damage to them is typically permanent.
To address this challenge, the researchers used a treatment involving the protein hyper-interleukin-6 (hiL-6), which makes these nerve cells regenerate and grow back. The protein doesn’t occur in nature — it has to be genetically engineered — but once available, it can be used to stimulate nerve cells to regrow and repair.
The research team showed for the first time that this protein can reverse paralysis in mice. To make the hiL-6, they stimulated the mice’s brains to produce the protein, which was then spread to other brain areas and nerve cells. By stimulating the production of the protein in one brain area, it could start nerve cells in the spinal cord regenerating.
“Ultimately, this enabled the previously paralyzed animals that received this treatment to start walking after two to three weeks,” said lead researcher Dietmar Fischer in a statement. “This came as a great surprise to us at the beginning, as it had never been shown to be possible before after full paraplegia.”
The next step is for the team to research whether this method can be used alongside other existing treatments to produce hiL-6 more effectively. And they also want to know whether the treatment can be used if a spinal cord injury occurred only recently, in the last few weeks. “This aspect would be particularly relevant for application in humans,” said Fischer. “We are now breaking new scientific ground. These further experiments will show, among other things, whether it will be possible to transfer these new approaches to humans in the future.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.
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