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Research may provide hope to spinal cord injury patients

Over the past few decades, modern medicine has developed techniques and treatments to mitigate or even cure a number of serious diseases and conditions. Unfortunately, despite years of research, doctors and researchers have not yet discovered a treatment that would allow them to cure damage to the central nervous system. New research, however, regarding the mechanism by which nerve cells regenerate is providing new hope for those who have suffered spinal cord injuries.

According to studies presented recently at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, one researcher at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University has succeeded in getting neurons to regenerate to a length not seen before in previous experiments. Even more important, the regenerated neurons are able to make connections with neurons in the brain and spinal cord, which allows information to pass freely into the brain. Though the techniques used here are still experimental and have yet to be tested on human patients, they may one day allow doctors to repair nerve damage and restore function to those who have suffered spinal cord injuries.

As humans grow older, the cells in our central nervous system become more resistant to repair. Our bodies not only produce less of the compounds that aid in cell growth, but also produce more of those that prevent regeneration. In addition, a spinal cord injury produces scar tissue, which hinders new nerve cell growth even further.

Researchers at the Sackler School have been testing a synthetic compound that mimics those in the body that naturally stimulate new nerve cell growth. They have used this compound, known as artemin, on damaged sensory neurons that relay information from the hands and arms to the spinal cord and brain.

In experiments, the team was able to get neurons to grow just over an inch to reach the spinal cord and brainstem. Furthermore, the new nerve cells reconnected exactly where they needed to be in the spinal cord to send signals to the correct part of the brain. Although stimulating new nerve cell growth is important, it means little if the cells cannot pass along information.

Although this new research is exciting, its application is still somewhat limited. For example, it must be administered within days of an initial injury to be effective. In addition, only sensory neurons, not motor neurons, appear to respond to the application of artemin. This means that this treatment may help restore feeling, but it would not necessarily help to restore function. Nevertheless, the development of these treatments, though at an early stage, may help doctors treat injured patients in the near future.