New hope for the paralysed: Breakthrough sees rats with broken backs able to run in just two weeks

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UPDATED:

11:18 GMT, 1 June 2012

Paralysed patients have been given fresh hope after scientists enabled rats with severed spines to run again.

Using a cocktail of drugs and electrical impulses, researchers ‘regrew’ nerves linking the spinal cord to the brain.

After two weeks, the animals were not only able to walk, but climb stairs and run.

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Climbing the steps: Researchers at EPFL have successfully used electrochemical stimulation to restore voluntary movement following a paralysing spinal cord injury

Climbing the steps: Researchers at EPFL have successfully used electrochemical stimulation to restore voluntary movement following a paralysing spinal cord injury

After only a few weeks of stimulation, nerve connections begin to grow again - and this could be of huge significance for the 50,000 sufferers

After only a few weeks of stimulation, nerve connections begin to grow again – and this could be of huge significance for the 50,000 sufferers

Professor Gregoire Courtine said the
study revealed the body could recover from some injuries previously
thought to cause permanent paralysis.

His team, based in Switzerland,
believe human trials could begin next year for patients with spinal
injuries thanks to a 7million grant.

There are around 50,000 people with spinal cord injuries in Britain.

In tests at the University of Zurich, rats had their spine tissue cut but not completely severed.

They were unable to walk as they
could no longer receive signals from the brain. But when they were
suspended in a vest on their hind legs, and the bottom of their spine
stimulated using drugs and electrical impulses, the dormant nerves were
reactivated.

Signals from the brain were able to ‘bypass’ the injury and restore contact with the lower body.

What the scientists did

Mighty mouse: Researchers at EPFL used electrochemical stimulation to grow nerve connections

Mighty mouse: Researchers at EPFL used electrochemical stimulation to grow nerve connections

Now that the principle has been demonstrated on rats, it may one day offer humans with spinal cord injuries hope for functional improvement of their condition

Now that the principle has been demonstrated on rats, it may one
day offer humans with spinal cord injuries hope for functional improvement of their condition

Professor Courtine said: ‘This is the
World Cup of neuro-rehabilitation. Our rats have become athletes when
just weeks before they were completely paralysed. I am talking about 100
per cent recuperation of voluntary movement.

‘The brain established new connections.

‘The cut fibres regrew and
established relay connections in the spinal cord which enabled them to
pass information from the brain, past the injury in order to restore a
voluntary control over the circuitry below the injury.’

The rats could only walk with the
chemical and electrical stimulation and scientists would have to devise a
safe way of administering these to humans – for example through a
catheter – on a long-term basis.

Experts in the field praised the
work, published in the journal Science, as a major medical advance which
could offer the best hope yet to paralysed patients.

However they urged caution, pointing
out that rats’ nervous systems are not the same as those of humans, and
that most spinal injuries involve extensive bruising rather than a neat
cut.

After only a few weeks of stimulation, nerve connections begin to grow again - and this could lead to revolutionary medical treatments on humans

After only a few weeks of stimulation, nerve connections begin to grow again – and this could lead to revolutionary medical treatments on humans

Dr Elizabeth Bradbury, of King’s
College London, said: ‘This is ground-breaking research and offers great
hope for the future of restoring function to spinal-injured patients,
however some questions remain before we know how useful this approach
may be in humans.’

Dr Mark Bacon, of the organisation Spinal Research, said: ‘It gives enormous hope.

‘In the past it was seen as folly to
think we might be able to restore function and I think that’s no longer
the case, but it’s about translating these robust effects in animal
models to the clinic safely.’

Recent years have seen intense
efforts focused on stem cell therapies to help paralysed patients, but
these have not yielded any treatments so far.

Last year US researchers helped a
23-year-old paralysed man regain some movement after electrical
stimulation, but Dr Bacon said the cocktail of drugs the Swiss team used
had offered an additional boost.

Dan Burden of the Spinal Injuries Association said: ‘It’s an exciting development but we would issue a
word of caution that the neurology [of rats] is considerably different
from our own.

‘We are a long way off anything that
would resemble a cure in humans, but this is a first step which might
well lead to new treatments which could make the future of people with
spinal cord injuries seem brighter.’

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