Paralyzed Rats Learn to Walk Again In Rehabilitation Experiment

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Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne / AP

A previously paralyzed rat in a special harness walks voluntarily after several weeks of rehabilitation in a laboratory in Switzerland.

Swiss scientists have restored mobility to rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, a development that could inspire new hope for people who’ve suffered from similar debilitation.

After several weeks of intensive training and rehabilitation, the rats could walk just as they had before the injury — and some could even run, the New York Times reports. The central feature of the study, led by Gregoire Courtine and a team of researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, included electrical and chemical stimulation of the rats’ brains and spines to improve muscle control. Until recently, several scientists had thought full rehabilitation after disabling spinal injuries would be an impossible feat.

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The lab rats lost use of their hind legs after the researchers implemented a surgical injury, and soon began a daily rehab regimen. An apparatus held the rats upright, requiring them to place their full weight on their legs as they attempted to lurch toward nearby pieces of cheese. After six weeks of electric stimulation to the brain and spine and chemical stimulation to the wound site, the rats could walk autonomously, and a few could run and climb stairs. On the other hand, a comparison group, which sustained the same injury but trained in a more passive manner on a treadmill, saw underwhelming recovery, the Times reports.

While the method’s success certainly bodes well for people who’ve been paralyzed from similar injuries, it’s important to note the distinction between the type of injury the rats suffered and the type most humans suffer. The animals’ spinal columns were cut directly, whereas most human injuries result from compression or bruising. However, the rats’ spinal cords weren’t severed completely, keeping the injury relatively comparable to the type often suffered by humans, which rarely involves a complete break. Still, though, given the difference in the nature of the injury, the technique might not translate directly and could require some key adjustments to produce equally successful results in humans. It’s also unclear whether the study’s electro-chemical stimulation method would prove effective on spinal cords that have been damaged for several years.

The research team has begun developing plans to test the technique on humans, and hopes to begin within the next year or two.

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