Cutting Edge Spinal Injury Research
Discovering a Cure for Paralysis
To help discover a cure for the paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries cause, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation supports a variety of cutting edge research projects. Current areas of focus include neuroprotection, axon growth, growth inhibition, and stem cell research. In the first weeks and even months after a spinal cord injury, cellular damage continues as the immune system and other processes triggered by trauma kill off cells that survived the initial injury. This problem, known as apoptosis, can sap a victim of additional function. If this biological ripple effect could be prevented or contained, the injury might wreak less havoc. Research is currently being conducted into ways to curb apoptosis.
Spinal cord injuries destroy axons, but often the neurons of which they are extensions remain intact. While these neurons don't produce new axons or repair damaged ones, researchers are now studying methods that might cause the neurons to do just that. One approach attempts to reboot neuron development so that new axons grow and recreate nerve circuits that have been disrupted by an injury. Once damaged, cells in the central nervous system don't repair themselves, unlike cells in other parts of the body. After extensive researcher, scientists believe they have discovered the reason for this anomaly: the body's trauma responses prevent the growth of new axons by making the area surrounding an injury hostile to cellular growth.
Treatments will likely soon be developed to block growth-inhibiting molecules or prevent them from gathering at the injury site so that the body can repair its axons. The good news is that scientists are getting better at regenerating axons. The bad news is that these new axons must still travel long distances to rebuild nerve circuitry and restore function. Even if that occurs, neurotransmitters must also be restored. Because of these challenges, many researchers are studying the function of guidance molecules that help axons connect with the rest of the neural circuitry.
The Possibility of Stem Cell Research
If doctors can restore the functioning circuits, injured spinal cords could in theory be repaired. Embryonic stem cells can be formed into any type of tissue in the body. Neuroprogenitor stem cells, which eventually develop into brain and spinal cord cells, could repair damaged spinal cords if researchers can learn how to control their development. Researchers are working on understanding the basic functions of these stem cells so that they might one day restore function to people with these injuries.