Paralyzed Rats Gain Ability to Walk, Run

Hope for humans with spinal cord injuries, as paralyzed rats learn to walk and run

Rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries learned to walk again in a Swiss lab study, scientists reported Thursday.

Gregoire Courtine and his team at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne treated rats suffering from severe paralysis with a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation of the spinal cord along with robotic support, The New York Times reported.

“Our rats are not only voluntarily initiating a walking gait, but they are soon sprinting, climbing up stairs and avoiding obstacles,” said Courtine, whose results from the five-year study were published in the journal Science on Thursday.

The study spurs hope that the techniques may one day be used to treat humans with spinal cord damage, but Courtine emphasized that it remains unclear if this will be possible. It is unknown if this kind of electro-chemical treatment could help a spinal cord that has been damaged for a long time. Also, few human spinal cord injuries are a result of a direct cut through the cord, which is what the rats had.

"This is not a cure for spinal cord injuries," Courtine told Scientific American, "but what we are working on is quite surprising and encouraging. It's a very different concept from what has been done before, clearly showing that what is really important is to promote a highly functional state during training."

Courtine said he hopes to begin human trials in a year or two at Balgrist University Hospital Spinal Cord Injury Centre in Zurich.

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