Researchers advance spinal cord injury treatments

July 6, 2010

( -- A full recovery from a spinal cord injury? Don't hold your breath. Actually, according to Gordon Mitchell, a professor of neurosciences at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, holding your breath might be exactly the right thing to do.

Mitchell and team members from the University of Saskatchewan, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and the Emory School of Medicine are researching innovative spinal cord therapies that earned them the Translational Research Partnership Award this year. Their research will use short periods of to increase spinal cord plasticity, essentially training the spinal cord to compensate for injury.

The award recognizes the team's efforts to bring together people from different schools to translate research into real-world applications. Years ago, this research was born from the work of the Mitchell laboratory in the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

The team came together when Mitchell partnered with Gillian Muir, an associate professor of veterinary biomedical sciences at the University of Saskatchewan who did a one-year sabbatical in the Mitchell laboratory, and Randy Trumbower, then a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Zev Rymer at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Trumbower since moved to Emory University, where he is an assistant professor of . Between the fields of neurology, veterinary science, and physical rehabilitation, these three created the ideal team to tackle spinal cord injuries. Their success caused Mitchell to pursue the Translational Research Partnership award as a grant opportunity.

"I wanted this partnership to continue," Mitchell says.

Their grant, entitled "Intermittent Hypoxia Elicits Prolonged Restoration of Motor Function in Human Spinal Cord Injuries," offers the team a two-year budget of $750,000 to be coordinated between them as they explore a new therapy for spinal cord injuries.

The treatment, which was inspired by some curious effects seen in patients, involves a breathing mask that provides oxygen, then intervals of oxygen deprivation. The brief periods without oxygen cause the patient's body to compensate, training their motor neurons to improve breathing.

"But the effects we were having weren't restricted to respiratory motor neurons," says Mitchell. Preliminary results show an astounding increase in limb muscle function and control, both in rats and humans with partial spinal cord injuries, even after the first treatment.

The team hopes to pair this treatment with physical therapy to get the most out of the "training" of the spinal cord. "It's nearly impossible to get the spinal cord to regrow," Mitchell says, "but you can train it to do better."

He hopes that this research will reach the public quickly because it is not a drug, and may move through FDA approval quickly if their efforts are successful.

Mitchell predicts that the new treatment could have huge effects on pets with spinal cord injuries from accidents or herniated discs. "Right now, most of them are simply killed because the prognosis is so bad," says Mitchell.

The concept is getting attention for the potential human benefits as well. Because of the interest the Department of Defense is taking in helping soldiers with spinal cord injuries, they are funding the award through the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.

According to the Nov. 4, 2009 issue of USA Today in an article entitled "Spinal injuries up among troops," the rise of roadside bombs has dramatically increased the number of injuries as soldiers are battered within the confines of an armored vehicle.

Mitchell explains that most of these patients have only partial , meaning his new treatment has big potential to help them. With these implications to human and animal health on the horizon, Mitchell's team plans to begin their work this September.

Explore further: New spinal cord injury therapy developed

Related Stories

Stem cells used to reverse paralysis in animals

January 28, 2009

A new study has found that transplantation of stem cells from the lining of the spinal cord, called ependymal stem cells, reverses paralysis associated with spinal cord injuries in laboratory tests. The findings show that ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.