A major scientific breakthrough occurred this week, as Swiss scientists were able to teach paralyzed rats how to walk again. Rats who’d had their spinal cords severed were given a therapy and training that allowed them to not only walk again, but to even sprint and avoid obstacles.
NPR covers the story:
IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I’m Ira Flatow. Journalists should shy away from using the word breakthrough; it is a very rare event. But it’s hard to ignore that word when you hear about this experimental rehab technique used in rats.
Rats paralyzed after severe spinal cord injury were able to walk, they could sprint upstairs and even avoid obstacles after a combination of therapies. In a study published in Science, Swiss researchers began by electrically and chemically stimulating the rats’ spinal cords. Next, they strapped the rats into a robotic harness for support, and they left the rats to will themselves toward a treat. There’s a treat, I’m going to get that treat.
And after six weeks of that training, the rats learned to walk and even run again, and what the team observed was that new neural connections had formed between the brain and the spinal cord, bypassing the injury. Wow.
Dr. Moses Chao is professor of cell biology, physiology and neuroscience at New York University School of Medicine. He’s also president of the Society for Neuroscience and was part of the advisory board for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. He’s not affiliated with the study, and he joins us from Washington to comment on its significance. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MOSES CHAO: Thank you, Ira, it’s a pleasure to be here.
FLATOW: Is this as surprising to you as it sounds to us?
CHAO: Well, the success of the recovery from spinal cord injury is quite a surprise, but the findings are really built on many basic research work in the last decade.
FLATOW: Describe it to us, what kind of injury that the rats had and what actually happened in the treatment.
CHAO: So this was an injury that was in the spinal cord, the lower spinal cord, and it was actually two different lesions. They were pretty close together. It’s not a complete lesion of the spinal cord, so these are really incomplete injuries, but it was enough to cause paralysis in these animals.
FLATOW: And so they electrochemically stimulated the rat’s spinal cord.