Why can't science eliminate rats?

Paralyzed rats learn to walk again

Washington / Vienna - As great as the progress of medicine has been over the past few years and decades, researchers are in charge of treating people with paraplegia. At best, they are placing their hopes in treatment with embryonic stem cells, which are introduced into the injured nerve tissue. This resulted in improvements in animal experiments; a study with 20 people has been running since the end of 2010.

A research team headed by Grégoire Courtine, who holds a professorship dedicated to the rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries at the renowned Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), is now presenting a new and hopeful approach. The principle on which Courtine relies is called neuroplasiticity - that is, one wants to make use of the changeability of nerve material.

Grégoire Courtine explains details of his experiments (source: Youtube / EPFL)

His latest experiments have produced impressive results, at least in rats: rodents with completely paralyzed hind legs regained conscious control of their leg movements after the special rehabilitation process and were even able to run, climb stairs and circumvent obstacles, as Courtine and his team in the US science magazine did "Science" (vol. 336, p. 1182) reported.

Awaken "sleeping" nerve cells

The neurorehabilitation process is primarily based on stimulating the "sleeping" nerve cells in the spinal cord. If the spinal cord is seriously injured or completely severed, the nerve cells below the injured region no longer receive any information from the brain.

The scientists now wake up the sleeping cells to a certain extent - with a mix of chemicals that stimulates the nerve cells in a similar way to normal neurotransmitters in the brain. In addition, the nerve fibers were stimulated electrically. After two to three weeks of training, the rats took their first independent steps. They soon covered a distance of 21 meters in three minutes, write the researchers around Courtine, who, given the success of the therapy, speaks euphorically of the "World Cup for Neurorehabilitation".

The researchers assume that this approach can also be transferred to human patients with paraplegia - even if the nerve fibers run differently in animals and humans. Courtine is optimistic that in one to two years at the Balgrist University Clinic in Zurich, a corresponding phase two study can begin. (tasch, DER STANDARD, 1.6.2012)