Leading an active lifestyle could help repair and regenerate damaged nerves of the spinal cord after an injury, according to new research. Early stage study results were published in the latest issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine.
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Using mice and rat models, the international research team, led by scientists from Imperial College London, discovered that spinal cord injuries could be repaired after being damaged through exercise.
The team provided the lab animals with an exercise wheel and other activity toys along with mates. The test animals were also given extra space to roam around in.
In response, the animals became more active, and the scientists noticed that the damaged nerve cells within their spinal cords began to regenerate. They also used a drug to mimic the effects of an active lifestyle and found that this too could regenerate the damaged nerve cells.
‘It's almost as if the nerve cells are being primed for regeneration’
The researchers agree that their work is still in preliminary stages but opens up a “realistic pathway” towards regeneration and repair of the damaged spinal cord tissues. The hope is that these results could soon be translatable to human patients as well.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that people with an active lifestyle may recover to a greater degree after spinal cord injury than those who are less active.
Our studies support these findings.
From what we have seen it's almost as if the nerve cells are being 'primed' for regeneration and growth, which add to this enhanced recovery.”
Professor Simone Di Giovanni, Lead Author
Exercising leads to ‘changes in gene expression’
The researchers explain that the spinal cord contains nerve fibres that have long axons or tails that stretch down the spine and when damaged can be severed. These then fail to carry signals from the body to the brain and vice versa. The damage in most cases is irreversible with most sufferers left paralyzed.
Professor Di Giovanni explained, “We discovered that environmental enrichment such as housing mice in a larger cage than usual, with more mice in it, more toys, tunnels, swings, running wheels etc. increases the activity of neurons. This leads to changes in gene expression which make the nerve more likely to regenerate. Essentially, by increasing the activity of neurons that sense enriched environmental stimuli we have been able to promote the regenerative potential of nerves after spinal cord injury.”
‘Further studies are needed’ before the treatment can be extended to humans
“In principle, this kind of treatment is not very far from being tested in the clinic. Further studies are needed to show the drug is safe in humans, before it could be trialled. But in future it could potentially be combined with neurorehabilitation in clinical trials,” Di Giovanni concluded.