Nerves Bridge Spinal Cord Injury

An old technique with a new twist restores breathing in lab tests.

Many people with upper spinal cord injuries rely on ventilators to breathe, which can be inconvenient and potentially dangerous.

spinal column injury

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine reported a significant step toward independence for these individuals in the July 14 online issue of Nature. The scientists bridged a spinal cord injury in an adult rodent model and regenerated lost nerve connections to the diaphragm—restoring 80 to 100 percent of breathing function.

"We've shown for the very first time that robust, long-distance regeneration can restore function of the respiratory system fully," says Case Western Reserve neuroscientist Jerry Silver.

Silver discovered adding an enzyme to a traditional peripheral nerve graft broke down the scar tissue that typically had inhibited grafts from working on spinal injuries. The enzyme opened pathways through the scar tissue, and special cells inside the graft guided and supported regeneration of the severed spinal nerves. Nearly 3,000 severed nerves entered the bridge, and 400 to 500 grew out the other side.

The scientists say more testing is necessary but are hopeful their technique will be quickly used in clinical trials.