Is Neurology Getting Any Closer to Curing Paralysis from Spinal Injury?

Spinal injuries can cause paralysis, which can become life threatening because of potential issues surrounding them (blood clots forming from a person sitting in a wheelchair, with their lower extremities unable to move, for example, or infected sores).

Over the last several decades, scientists have been working on ideas for ways to revive severed spinal cords so that they can transmit nerve signals once more. One scientist that believes this is the case is Reggie Edgerton, and after decades of work he has managed to prove that it is possible to restore severed nerves.

female neurologist holding MRI of the spine

Although his initial successes were achieved on rats, his research is not aimed at merely benefiting veterinary neurologists. He has, in fact, already managed to help almost a dozen men to move their limbs of their own accord, getting back control of their bladder, bowel function, sexual function and more, and even stand and (with aid) walk.

The hope is that this could become something that could be used to help many more people who are injured – especially those whose injuries are relatively recent. The foundation has put more than $120 million towards research over its life span, and there have been a lot of dead ends along the way, but Edgerton’s technique, which relies on implanting a small device near the spinal cord, could help to do far more than what it was originally designed for (pain relief), by bringing a damaged spinal cord back to life.

The Reeve Foundation is hoping to use the device to help 36 men and women who are paralyzed, and if it works for them it will then have the potential to be rolled out country-wide. The tests that the foundation will be doing will focus on people whose injuries occurred in the last two or three years.

Edgerton’s breakthrough came because he refused to accept that the spinal cord is just a messenger that transmits signals between the brain and your limbs. He believes that it is an organ and that it can adapt the way the brain can, generating patterns and learning, so that it can recover when injured.

There is a phenomenon called neuroplasticity, which is how we learn – and is something that stroke patients rely on to re-gain the ability to speak or move after severe damage is done. Neuroplasticity means that the brain’s neural pathways can be rerouted and changed to help people to learn new skills. Young people have the most ‘plastic’ brains, but older people can re-learn things – plasticity does not go away. A large part of why older people are slower to adapt is lifestyle related (and the way that repeated use of existing skills will reinforce those signals, making it harder to ‘replace’ them). The spinal cord could be similar in how it works – and healthy nerves could adapt to take over the role of the damaged ones; at least that’s the theory.

There are other theories surrounding stem cells, which suggest that a completely severed spinal cord could regenerate.