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A new approach to treating spinal cord injuries

September 22, 2009 |  5:00 am

Researchers focused on reversing the paralysis induced by spinal cord injuries have focused on using stem cells to regenerate the damaged nerve cells that are needed to transmit signals from the brain to the limbs.

Now a team of scientists from Switzerland, Russia and UCLA are reporting success with another approach. They used drugs and electrical currents to get paraplegic rats to walk again, according to a report published online Sunday by the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The animals were outfitted in a special harness to help them balance on their two hind legs. Then the researchers gave the rats medications that prompted “erratic hindlimb movements” by mimicking the effect of the neurotransmitter serotonin. When combined with small, carefully placed electric shocks, the rats’ legs moved in a way that resembled walking.

After nine weeks of practice, the paralyzed rats were able to resume normal hind-leg walking, the researchers said. The rats could also walk backwards and sideways and even run. These being Los Angeles rats, they naturally star in their own movie as well.

All this rehabilitation still left the animals unable to walk of their own accord, since their brains were still cut off from their legs. But human beings paralyzed by spinal cord injuries might be able to bridge that gap with neuroprosthetic devices, the scientists said in their study. The method could also improve walking in patients with Parkinson’s disease, they said.

-- Karen Kaplan

Video: This paralyzed rat learned to walk again … sort of. Credit: Gregoire Courtine et al

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