What is spinal cord injury?
The adult spinal cord is the major bundle of nerves that carries nerve impulses between the brain and the rest of the body. Motor neurons transmit messages from our brain to our muscles for movement, while sensory nerves pass sensory information back to our brain for processing.
Injury to the spinal cord causes loss of function of the nerves, limbs and organs below the site of the injury. The spinal cord does not have to be severed in order for a loss of function to occur – in fact, most people with a spinal cord injury have experienced compression or bruising.
While improved emergency management and medical care is increasing life expectancy, researchers are continuing to investigate cellular and drug therapies and improved rehabilitation methods for SCI patients.
Researchers across the globe have developed more neurotrauma therapies in the past decade than were developed in the previous 100 years. These discoveries have resulted from basic scientific research and the subsequent translation of these findings into clinical practice.
Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) researchers are contributing to this discovery by developing a drug-based treatment for spinal cord injury that stimulates the re-growth of axons through a spinal cord lesion and works to reduce glial scarring. The glial scar is a dense mechanical – and probably biochemical – barrier for regenerating axons, which forms at the site of neural damage. It is thought that such a drug may also play a role in treating neural trauma.
Further, research in a mouse model has shown that removing the protein EphA4 in mice with damaged spinal cords leads to regeneration of nerve processes and dramatic changes in limb usage. Neuroscientists will now focus on developing therapeutic treatments that block the action of this molecule – however they warn human trials are still some time away.
Researcher Dr Mark Spanevello explained: “Our research on spinal injuries in the EphA4-knockout mouse showed outstanding nerve regeneration and functional recovery that has not been reported previously. From this research we have developed a therapeutic that mimics, in injured normal mice, the same functional improvement and nerve regrowth that we have observed in the knockout animal. This therapeutic is undergoing further preclinical evaluation in a number of different animal models to examine its effectiveness for future human clinical trials.”