Research about Spinal Cord Injury

Much of the current research on spinal cord injury centers on finding a way to repair an injured spinal cord. Scientists are looking at ways to slow down secondary damage or stop it completely.

They are also seeking strategies for reconnecting the nerve network that connects to the spinal cord and brain, and for axon (nerve fibers that carry messages to the brain) growth. Other studies concentrate on finding ways to replace damaged nerve cells.

Researchers are examining the biochemical makeup of spinal cord cells and the cells that surround them. By understanding how cells react to each other, scientists hope to develop additional medications and procedures that will help preserve the spinal cord and keep secondary damage to a minimum.

For example, cells emit a substance called glutamate when they die. Glutamate also is released by healthy nerve cells. The overflow of glutamate that results from a spinal cord injury can cause cells to self-destruct, even healthy cells that should be preserved. Scientists are researching ways to control glutamate.

Other researchers are looking at the ways immune cells respond when a spinal cord injury occurs. While immune cells help prevent infections and clean the area of dead cells, they can also release substances that contribute to cell death. Scientists would like to find a way to stimulate the good aspects of the immune cells and control the harmful effects.

Some scientists are also exploring how mild hypothermia can help in spinal cord injuries. Cooling the body to 92 degrees Fahrenheit after injury may prevent further damage and even help recovery.

Axon regeneration is another important area of research. Successful axon networks allow for greater recovery and mobility. This is a difficult task because the area around the spinal cord needs to have more substances that encourage growth and fewer substances that restrict it.

Some medical researchers are studying how stem cells could help spinal cord injury patients. According to the Mayo Clinic, stem cells are "master cells" that can divide and eventually become new stem cells or specialized cells (e.g., heart cells, bone cells). Stem cells are the only kind of cell that can do this.

Researchers hope to find a way that spinal cord and nerve cells could be generated and transferred to the patient, much like an organ transplant. However, additional research is required.

Research to help patients with spinal cord injuries manage their lives is also ongoing. Scientists are trying to determine which rehabilitation techniques help patients most in their day-to-day lives. Additional medications and substances are being developed to control pain and spasticity and enhance sexual function. New electrical stimulation techniques may help with incontinence.

Increasing mobility is another goal of research. For example, the functional electrical stimulation (FES) system allows the patient to move immobile limbs by computer. Electrodes are placed either on the patient's limbs or inside the body through surgery, allowing the patient to move more easily and exercise more, which has a number of health benefits. However, because the movement is not very smooth, some patients have been reluctant to use the system. Researchers are looking at ways to improve this process.

Scientists are also studying how paralyzed limbs can be retrained to move. A physical therapist might help a patient simulate walking by moving legs back and forth. Or, the FES system can be utilized, using a special bicycle for pedaling.

Publication Review By: Alan B. Ettinger, M.D.

Published: 14 Feb 2007

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015