Swiss scientists restore voluntary locomotion in paralysed rats.

A study published yesterday in the journal Science, in which a team of scientists led by Professor Gregoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology used a combination of electrical stimulation, drug treatment and a training regime that encouraged active participation to restore voluntary control of movement in paralysed rats, has received widespread media coverage over the past 24 hours, including reports on the BBC website and ABC news.

If this sounds familiar than it should, as this breakthrough builds on a technique pioneered by Professor V. Reggie Edgerton of UCLA that we reported on last year which enabled a man who had been paralysed in a car accident to stand and take a few steps on a treadmill. Prof. Edgerton wrote an article for Speaking of Research on the importance of animal research to the development of electrostimulation to overcome paralysis.

The key difference between the earlier work and that published by the Swiss team is that whereas in the earlier animal and clinical studies undertaken by Prof. Edgerton there was no conscious control by the rat or human over movement, Prof. Courtine and colleagues devised a training program that allowed the rats to learn to exercise conscious control over the previously paralysed limbs, eventually allowing the rats to run and climb.  In the video below Prof. Courtine discusses the important implications of his team’s work.

There is also an interview available as a podcast without subscription on the Science website in which Prof. Courtine discusses his work in more depth.

The importance of this study should not be underestimated, as it demonstrates that electrostimulation of the lower spinal cord has even greater potential to improve the lives of people with severe spinal cord injuries that was apparent in the earlier studies by Prof. Edgerton and colleagues, studies that were major medical breakthroughs in their own right.

Paul Browne

4 responses to “Swiss scientists restore voluntary locomotion in paralysed rats.

  1. Pingback: Interfacing with the nervous system: Studies in mice and rats show the way. | Speaking of Research

  2. i suffered a spial cord injury in 2008 a c6 incomplete injury and if ur looking for a human to try ur research on i wouold gladly offer mybody for the research

  3. This study doesn’t ignore the previous literature on functional recovery following staggered hemisections, which would in any case be surprising since Gergoire Courtine was the 1st author on one of the more recent papers examining spontaneous functional recovery following staggered hemisections, and following complete transections of the spinal cord, it’s available to read without subscription at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2916740/?tool=pubmed

    The observation by several lab researchers and physicians over the years that there is significant spontaneous recovery of function following some spinal injuries that initially cause total paralysis is what has spurred Courtine and Edgerton’s research, they are seeking to exploit processes that already happen to some extent, but improve them so that they can promote recovery in situations where recoverty currently isn’t observed.

    With staggered hemisections functional recovery – indeed recovery of conscious control over muscles – has been oberved before, but only when ther was a delay of several weeks to allow recovery between the first hemisection and the second hemisection. When the two hemisections are performed simultaneously – as is the case in this newest study, and a situation that better represents real spinal cord injuries – there is no recovery (see link above), and indeed in this study there was no spontaneous recovery even 2 months after injury. The rats only recovered function when treated with a combination of electrostimulation and drug (serotonin and dopamine receptor agonist) treatment, and the training regime that was crucial to the recovery of conscious control.

    What Prof. Courtine and colleagues have done certainly builds on previous work, but has also pushes functional recovery after spinal cord damage well beyond anything that has been observed before, and for that they deserve the recognition they’ve got over the past few days.

  4. This is a bunch of hooey and this study ignores a great deal of the literature, which already suggests that these staggered hemisections can result in substantial functional recovery in the absence of neuroprosthesis or electrical stimulation. Just because something is published in science doesn’t mean we necessarily have to believe it’s incredibly important – lets see what other experts in the field have to say about this work.