Researchers hope to improve lives of spinal cord injury patients

According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Center, approximately 273,000 people in the U.S. are currently living with a permanent spinal cord injury. Each year, there are approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injury cases. Of those patients whose care is tracked, approximately 18 percent lack both motor and sensory function from their chests or waists. About 12 percent lack movement or sensation from the neck down.

Of course, medical science currently lacks the knowledge to repair serious spinal cord injuries. Researchers are, however, making important strides in developing new techniques to help SCI patients regain as much function and independence as possible. One new technique, developed by scientists at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, may prove to be an important step in restoring bladder function in those with spinal cord injuries.

Researchers tested their technique on rats whose spinal cords had been completely severed. First, they placed a bundle of neurons, which had been harvested from the rats' rib cages, in the gap where the animals' spinal cords had been cut. Second, they injected two drugs - one compound to combat the growth of scar tissue, the other to promote neuron growth - into the two ends of the spinal cords at the site of injury. Finally, they stabilized the vertebrae around the damaged portion of spinal cord to prevent further damage.

Using this technique, researchers were able to bridge a multi-centimeter gap in rats' spinal cords. According to a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, the new neuron growth restored the animals' ability to urinate normally.

Although this technique was successful in restoring some primitive neurological function, it does not appear as if it could be used to restore more complex functions, such as the ability to walk. While this may sound discouraging at first, a survey of paraplegics and quadriplegics published in the Journal of Neurotrauma found that regaining bladder control was a top priority for people in both populations.

Researchers have a long way to go before they are able to turn their technique into a viable treatment for humans, but many experts have expressed optimism that it can be done. More than anything else, future studies will focus on weather this technique can be used to bridge a gap that is longer than a few centimeters.

Studies such as this one are proving incorrect the long accepted belief that damage to the spinal cord is simply irreparable.