Healthwatch: Reversing Paralysis?

By: Karen Lurie
By: Karen Lurie

Henry Stifel leads an active life. He travels a lot and even scuba dives, despite having a spinal cord injury.

"I have a degree of paralysis throughout my entire body," said Stifel, who is paralyzed. "The actual damage is in my spinal cord. If I could get a signal from above that injury to below injury, I'd be in great shape."

Neuroscientist John Martin is trying to help people like Stifel. He's engineering a nerve bridge to restore communication between the brain and muscles.

"This approach is geared toward promoting motor control functions, walking, bladder functions, that sort of thing," said John Martin of Columbia University.

We move when the brain and body exchange chemical messages up and down the spinal cord. Damage prevents the signals from reaching their intended destinations.

Studying rats, martin used a segment of nerve fiber to create a bridge that can bypass a spinal cord injury. He reported in the journal of neuroscience that nerve signals then followed this detour around the damage.

"We think that enough information can travel across this bridge to have a significant impact," said Martin.

Martin said he hopes to start human tests in about five years, but neurosurgeon James Guest of the University of Miami said in a statement, "In a human you would need to increase the distance by a factor of about ten, so it's hard to know whether in a human you would see similar results."

Even so, Henry Stifel says he's willing to wait for it.

"It's research that I want to see get to the next level," said Stifel.

Martin said most spinal cord research now focuses on fixing the damage within days of when an injury occurs, but he hopes his study can one day be applied to help people who were injured years ago.

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