Paralyzed Rats Walk Again

By Amir Khan on June 1, 2012 10:12 AM EDT

Paralyzed Rat
Researchers rewired the brain of paralyzed rats to allow them to walk again, according to a new study (Photo: Reuters)

Researchers restored the walking ability of paralyzed rats, according to a new study, published Friday in the journal Science. The technique may one day be able to help paralyzed humans regain motion as well -- though researchers note that there are several differences between the rats and humans.

Rats with damaged spinal cords were able to walk and run again through a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation coupled with robotic support. Rats whose spinal cords were cut were placed in a harness that let only their hind legs reach the ground. They were then placed on a treadmill where they were taught how to work again via electrodes implanted in their brain.

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After two to three weeks, the rats began walking on their own, though they still needed the harness for support. The treatment resulted in the brain and spinal cord being completely rewired in over 100 rats, according to the study.

"Our rats are not only voluntarily initiating a walking gait, but they are soon sprinting, climbing up stairs and avoiding obstacles," Gregoire Courtine, study coauthor and researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, told MSNBC.

While the findings help researchers better understand paralysis, the researchers stressed that it's unclear whether the technique will work in humans, as few human injuries are the result of spinal cord cutting. Instead, paralysis is usually caused by bruising or compression of the cord, researchers said.

Nevertheless, the study is still ""a significant contribution to understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the generation of [movement] due to spinal cord injury," Dr. Robert Grossman, chairman of neurosurgery at Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay.

Dr. Nathaniel Tindel, an attending orthopedic spinal surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay that the findings are a culmination of over two decades worth of research.

"Over the past 20 years or so, research has moved away from getting damaged [nerve] pathways to work and trying to recruit other pathways to work -- to trick the spinal cord into creating a detour or other routes," he said. That's the essence of this research. It's not groundbreaking in this sense, but what is unique is not that they got rats to move, but the techniques and protocol they used. This is great stuff because it's really delineating an approach for studying these new pathways."

Clinical trials need to be undertaken before researchers can fully understand the implications of the study, Tindel told Healthday.

"Rats have a phenomenal ability to regenerate, better than we do," he said. "It's a nice model because they can get results quicker, but rats have a different system." 

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