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.