Paralysed rats walk again without brain input

Release date: 05-Nov-2009

Organisation: University of Zurich

A new study shows paralysed rats with complete spinal cord injury can walk again if they are treated to a specific combination of drugs, electrical stimulation and exercise training.

Researchers led by Professor Gregoire Courtine at the University of Zurich conducted experiments on adult rats with a complete transection of the spinal cord at T7. The rats then received a 3-part intervention. They were given a drug which mimics the neurotransmitter serotonin plus electrical stimulation to the surface of the cord at lumbar and/or sacral levels. These two interventions activated the spinal cord circuits that control the hind legs. The third intervention, locomotor training, was then introduced, by putting the rats on a treadmill, with a harness to help support their weight.

The rats could not initiate motion but after two months of the drugs, electrical stimulation and treadmill training their nerve circuits were able to activate hindleg muscles in patterns which closely resembled normal stepping movements and walking.

This is the first time scientists have been able to successfully make a paralysed rat support its own weight and walk. The rats’ movements were involuntary and they did not consciously use their brains to control their legs. Instead the spinal cord was able to independently activate leg muscles in close to normal movements.

The group believes it is possible that a neuroprosthetic device in combination with an appropriate pharmacological treatment could form a good neurorehabilitative strategy for people with SCI.

Source: Courtine, et al. (2009) Transformation of nonfunctional spinal circuits into functional states after the loss of brain input. Nature Neuroscience, 12(10); 1333-1344.

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