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What do paralyzed rats, electricity and chocolate have in common?

In a promising new study, researchers have created a new therapy regimen utilizing a variety of treatments in combinations that have proven to make paralyzed rats able to walk again. Spinal cord injuries have a debilitating effect on a large number of peoples' lives and are often thought to be permanent. This new research could hold promise for disabled persons in Maryland and around the world who have been injured in car accidents and the like to someday recover some of their motor functions.

Researchers are saying this new combination of treatments is the first time a severely injured spinal cord has been "reawakened." The study began with the severing of the spines in 27 rats, leaving some of the tissue intact, but leaving no nerve connections which allowed the animals to control their hind legs. After one week, researchers put 17 of the rats on a course of physical therapy that included custom-built treadmills and harnesses and chemical injections in addition to electrical stimulation applied directly to spinal cords of the rats. The remaining 10 rats received no treatments and were used as a control group.

The treadmill was used to exploit the reflexes that make walking somewhat passive. Imagine, said a neuroscientist from the National Institutes of Health who was not involved in the study, that your brain cannot send any signals below the point of injury, however you can still walk on a treadmill. The treadmill drags one leg behind you and stimulates a reflex in the other leg to take a step.

The rats also received a mild electrical stimulation that mimicked signals the brain sends to move the legs. They were also injected with chemicals known to assist the nerve cells that carry those signals in hopes of improving communication. And of course, chocolate was used as an incentive for the rats to reach the end of the course.

Although all of these treatments are already being used in treating humans, what is new about this study is the use of these various treatments in combination with each other. This exciting research brings new hope for people who have been paralyzed in various accidents to someday recover from some of their injuries. The marvels of modern science bring new hope yet again.

Source: National Geographic, "Paralyzed Rats Walk Again, Thanks to Electricity, Chemicals-And Chocolate," Rachel Kaufman, May 31, 2012

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