The Ongoing Search for a Paralysis Cure
Paralysis is a loss of functions and feelings in various regions, if not a majority, of an individual’s body. This is often caused by some form of trauma, whether this be an accident or other traumatic situation, such as a stroke or substance abuse.
Paralysis occurs when electrical impulses can no longer reach all the required areas they once could, leaving an individual with a lack of feeling and mobility. There is currently no ‘cure’ for permanent paralysis, but there is a wealth of research being undertaken globally in the pursuit to find a way to reverse and indeed ‘cure’ paralysis.
Although technology is improving and breakthroughs are happening all the time, for now, individuals who are living with paralysis have a range of treatments available to them which concentrate on recovering, restoring and/or improving the motor functions.
There is plenty of exploration being done to work towards the holy grail of SCI research, a paralysis cure. Some of the forefront work that is being done includes epidural stimulation, cell therapy, or intensive physiotherapy. We’ll explore each of these a little more below.
Research Areas for a Paralysis Cure
In general, there are four areas in that paralysis research is typically bucketed in, neuroprotection, regeneration, cell replacement, and the retraining of CNS circuits.
Neuroprotection involves the study of strategies which aim to protect remaining cells from further damage. This includes cell death and reducing or limiting the inflammation around the spinal cord. Inflammation is important to address, as it can restrict blood flow to other cells, resulting in further damage or even death.
Medications such as steroids and antibiotics have shown promise toward a reduction in nerve cell damage and death. These, however, are still in the research phase and have not been FDA approved.
A further example of research into this area is the testing on white blood cells that are part of the inflammatory response when injury occurs called macrophages. By attempting to manipulate these, scientists hope to promote nerve cell growth in a way which does not cause further damage to tissue.
Cell replacement attempts to replace damaged cells from spinal injuries. When someone experiences a spinal cord injury, various forms of damage occur to the various cells involved. Stem cell transplantation, when tested in animals, has shown to replace the expired nerve cells (a result of the injury). Controversy exists over this form of treatment, for there are gaps in stem cell knowledge.
Axons are part of a nerve cell along which nerve impulses are transported, and spinal cord injuries can often leave these damaged. Stem cell transplantation help to generate new supporting cells which reform and repair myelin to act as a bridge across the injury, stimulating growth of the aforementioned axons.
This form of research and treatment can also help prevent the injury spreading, by restraining inflammation that can cause damage post-injury. Research continues to find which cell types are providing most recovery of functions, although with the complex nature of it, it is expected much more research is required.
Regeneration refers to the reparation of damaged axons through methods that encourage and stimulate new growth. Nerve cells can die in many ways, whether through injury or naturally, and unfortunately do not possess the capacity for any real regeneration.
Many drugs are being tested to examine their ability to encourage axonal regeneration and inhibit cell death post-injury. Antibodies can be made to target ‘specific proteins that inhibit repair of the body after injury.’ By determining means of inhibiting toxins which cause cell death and prevent regeneration, scientists can find chemicals and drugs which can aid in the repairing of damaged nerves.
Retraining Central Nervous System (CNS) Circuits and Plasticity
Retraining CNS Circuits and Plasticity is an ongoing form of treatment which occurs for a prolonged period during an individual’s recovery from a spinal cord injury; even if the original injury perhaps occurred long ago. As part of this recovery, the brain undergoes neuroplasticity, which in this case means to form new nerve connections following cell death and/or injury.
Exercise and other forms of active rehabilitation are constantly being developed to encourage strength, muscle tone, and coordination. Although paralysis can halt or hinder active rehabilitation, this form of recovery therapy is largely recommended, and a topic researchers are keen to continue to develop; not only for a person’s physical recovery, but mental recovery, too.
Robot-assisted therapy is another form of treatment which continues to see developments; both of the technological aspects and in regards to results for paralysis patients.
Functional electric stimulation (FES) is a third area which provides promising results in regards to restoring function for spinal cord injury patients. FES devices deliver small bursts of electrical current to paralyzed muscles through the use of electrodes to encourage muscle contractions, and so far, this treatment is providing positive and strong foundations for further research.
The Continual Search for a Paralysis Cure
And so the search continues to find a cure for paralysis. Although no research has yet provided us one tried and true direction, it is clear to see that promising advances are being made in regards to treatment in the meantime.
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