Spine surgery restores breathing in rodent with injured spinal cord

Aug 2 2011
Researchers recently published data in the online July edition of the journal Nature explaining a successful attempt to restore breathing in a rodent model after a spinal cord injury. They used spine surgery to insert a peripheral nerve graft.

While the technology and techniques for peripheral nerve grafting have been known for some time, what made this attempt possible was the more recent discovery that the enzyme chondroitinase ABC, produced by certain bacteria, could be used to open nerve channels blocked by scarring.

Scarring has previously prevented nerve grafts from working on the spinal cord, although not in the arms and legs. The results of this particular attempt were checked after 3 and 6 months, and scientists found that almost all breathing function was restored.

"We've shown for the very first time that robust, long distance regeneration can restore function of the respiratory system fully," said Jerry Silver, senior author of the study and neurosciences professor at Case Western Reserve University.

Researchers are hopeful that the procedure can be used to restore breathing for those with upper spinal cord injuries and may have other uses, such as returning bladder function to patients with lower spinal cord injuries.

Silver was uncertain whether the procedure would grant enough control for patients to regain the ability to walk or perform similarly complex activities, while research has yet to determine how soon after a spinal cord injury the procedure can be effective. Some researchers suspect it may be less beneficial for those who have been injured longer, but Silver indicated that he thought it would have benefits for patients who had not been injured recently.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, between 10,000 and 12,000 spinal cord injuries occur nationwide each year, and a quarter million Americans are currently living with such injuries. More than half of these injuries result from car accidents or violent encounters, and over 80 percent of the injured are men.

Spinal cord injuries can have significant secondary effects, such as altering the blood flow throughout the body or inflammation caused by immune cells entering the area of the spinal cord trauma. Breathing problems are common, and respiratory complications are the leading cause of death among those with spinal cord injuries, frequently involving pneumonia. While symptoms can be treated, and promising research has taken place, there are currently no standard methods of restoring spinal cord function.