Spinal cord damage blocks the routes that the brain uses to send messages to the nerve cells that control walking. Until now, doctors believed that the only way for injured patients to walk again was to re-grow the long nerve highways that link the brain and base of the spinal cord. For the first time, a UCLA study shows that the central nervous system can reorganize and follow new pathways to restore the cellular communication required for movement.
The UCLA team’s next step will be to learn how to entice nerve cells in the spinal cord to grow and form new pathways that connect across or around the injury site, enabling the brain to direct these cells. If the researchers succeed, the findings could lead to the development of new strategies for restoring mobility following spinal cord injury.
“Our study has identified cells that we can target to try to restore communication between the brain and spinal cord,” explained Sofroniew. “If we can use existing nerve connections instead of attempting to rebuild the nervous system the way it existed before injury, our job of repairing spinal cord damage will become much easier.”
The discovery could lead to new therapies for the estimated 250,000 Americans who suffer from traumatic spinal cord injuries. An additional 10,000 cases occur each year, according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which helped fund the UCLA study