Paralyzed Rats Made to Walk Again Offers Promise for Human Rehabilitation

September 20, 2009

(ChattahBox—A team of UCLA researchers was successful in training paralyzed rats to walk again on a treadmill with full weight bearing steps, using a combination of drug, electrical stimulation and exercise therapies. This breakthrough offers hope for improved rehabilitation programs for human beings suffering from spinal cord injuries.

The researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tested rats with complete spinal injuries that left no voluntary movement in their hind legs. The therapies used on the rats didn’t produce the regeneration of their severed nerve fibers, but instead triggered nerve circuits in their spinal cords to cause leg movement scientists call, “stepping.”

Lead researcher, Reggie Edgerton, a UCLA professor of neurobiology and physiological sciences described the “stepping” concept:

“The spinal cord contains nerve circuits that can generate rhythmic activity without input from the brain to drive the hind leg muscles in a way that resembles walking called ‘stepping.'”

Previous studies have achieved some success with triggering the “stepping” reflex, but not to the extent of weight bearing steps. The UCLA is the first study to have achieved “stepping” while bearing full body weight.

The researchers put the paralyzed rats through a treadmill training program, and also administered electrical currents and drugs that effect the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Over time, the rates were able to regain full weight-bearing walking, including walking backwards, sideways and full speed running. However, the rats were still unable to walk on their own, without the treatments.

The researchers believe their research offers future implications for improved rehabilitation therapies on humans after spinal cord injuries.

The complete study is available in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

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