Road to mobility

By • Published: March 13th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Shakespeare said, “Many ways meet in one town.”

Scientists hope that the illustrious playwright’s metaphor may one day apply to the body’s natural efforts to overcome paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries.

Although cures for people are a long way off, researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles coaxed the brains of paralyzed mice to bypass damaged nerve pathways and use different routes to send messages to the spinal cord.

The finding is surprising because until recently, doctors thought the only way patients with spinal cord injuries could ever walk required the repair of the long, broken neural highways that link the brain and base of the spinal cord.

Detouring around the damage was not part of the answer.

But using a mouse model, scientists found shorter nerve pathways at the spinal cord’s center begin connecting with one another to form new routes when vital nerve fibers on each side of the spinal cord are destroyed.

Most of the mice with spinal injuries regained at least a portion of their ability to control their legs within eight weeks.

Later, when researchers blocked the newly formed pathways in the mice, paralysis returned, proving that messages from the brain to spinal cord were truly being routed in a unique way.

The challenge for scientists is to develop therapies to jumpstart the nerve cells in the spinal cord to grow detours around injuries.

Indeed, many roads may lead from the human brain to the spinal cord. The question is how to build them.