Current and Experimental Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury

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Serious spinal cord injuries which cause paralysis are made all the more devastating by the fact that very often, the injured person will never fully recover. A serious injury may result in life-long paralysis.

In rare cases, the injured person may partially or even fully recover their lost muscle function. However, there is simply no way of predicting whether this will happen in any given case.

Current and experimental treatments focus on preventing damage to the spinal cord, and to attempting to repair the damage after it has been done. Unfortunately, much of the damage done to the spinal cord is done not as a direct result of the accident which causes the initial injury. During the days and weeks following the initial injury, a secondary wave of damage—caused by a severe inflammatory response—kills off nerve cells and fibers that might otherwise have survived. This secondary wave can be so devastating that full paralysis can result even when the initial injury was relatively minor.

Current Treatment for Spinal Cord Injury

Available treatments for spinal cord injuries are currently very limited. One reason for this is that there is only a very small amount of time following the injury during which any treatment will have a positive effect. Generally, treatment must be administered within twelve hours of the injury. An additional problem is that there is really only one standard treatment: an injection of steroids, to stem the inflammatory response, and curb the secondary damage done to the injured area. Although this treatment is standard in such cases, there is considerable doubt as to its effectiveness.

Experimental Treatments: Vaccination

One possible approach to preventing the secondary wave of spinal cord damage is being explored by researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. This approach involves activating the immune system to try and limit the secondary damage done in the weeks following the initial injury (Schwartz 2006). This approach has so far been tested in rats, with some promising results: animals vaccinated with carefully-chosen peptides were more likely to regain significant muscle function following a spinal cord injury than were rats that didn’t receive the vaccination. The team who carried out this work say it may be possible for the treatment to be effective up to a week following the injury – an enormous improvement over current treatments.

Experimental Treatments: Stem Cell Transplant

Over the past decade, research on the use of stem cells in treating traumatic spinal cord injuries has been extensive, and has produced some exciting results. The most recent of these was in 2006, when researchers at Johns Hopkins announced they had been able to restore muscle function to paralyzed rats following a stem cell transplant (Deshpande 2006).

In this experiment, rats were given a transplant of stem cells, as well as a cocktail of hormones which improved their survivability and helped them recognize where they needed to be. Eleven of fifteen rats recovered function in previously paralyzed limbs, and it was shown that the transplant had done more than simply repair damaged cells – the new stem cells had actually grown new nerve tissue.

References and Further Reading

American Spinal Cord Injury Association

Mayo Clinic: The Nervous System

National Institute of Health Medline Plus: Spinal Cord

Deshpande DM, Kim YS, Martinez T, Carmen J, Dike S, Shats I, Rubin LL, Drummond J, Krishnan C, Hoke A, Maragakis N, Shefner J, Rothstein JD, Kerr DA. Recovery from paralysis in adult rats using embryonic stem cells. Annals of Neurology. 2006 Jul;60 (1):32-44

Schwartz M, Yoles E. Immune-based therapy for spinal cord repair: autologous macrophages and beyond. Journal of Neurotrauma. 2006 Mar-Apr;23 (3-4):360-70.