Paraplegia shrinks the spinal cord

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Spinal cord injury leads to tissue breakdown

As early as 40 days after spinal cord injury, those affected have less nerve tissue in the spinal cord. Researchers at the University of Zurich and the Balgrist University Hospital have found this out thanks to a new imaging measurement method. With the method, the effectiveness of treatments or rehabilitation could be controlled faster and better in the future.

Changes in the spinal cord and brain appear after 40 days. Spinal cord injury changes the spinal cord and brain. Until now, however, it was not known how quickly the anatomical changes develop in paraplegic people. Researchers from the University of Zurich and Balgrist University Hospital, in collaboration with colleagues from University College London, have now been able to prove that the changes have already started 40 days of acute injury. After twelve months, the spinal cord had shrunk by seven percent. The scientists published their research results in the specialist journal "Lancet Neurology".

There has been previous research in which the researchers demonstrated that the spinal cord had receded by a third after 14 years of spinal cord injury. The researchers were surprised because they assumed that it would take many years for the damage to develop above the injury.

Extent of changes in the spinal cord correlates with the course of the disease For their current study, the researchers examined 13 acutely paraplegic patients and 18 control persons. Within a year, the subjects were examined every three months using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers found a rapid decline in the spinal cord, which amounted to seven percent after twelve months. The researchers also reported that the ascending motor nerve tracts and nerve cells in the sensorimotor cortex, albeit less, lost volume. The extent of the degenerative changes depended on the course of the disease. “Patients with greater loss of nerve tissue above the injury recovered less well than those with less,” explained Patrick Freund, research assistant at the Center for Paraplegia Balgrist.

The chances of successfully treating paraplegia that leads to regeneration of the spinal cord have so far been very low. Those affected usually remain paralyzed for life. Freund points out, however, that the new imaging process can quickly reveal the effects of treatments and rehabilitation measures. In this way, new therapies could also be better checked for their effectiveness.

Neurorehabilitation procedure successfully used in paraplegic rats Another Swiss research team led by Grégoire Courtine from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Lausanne (EPFL) attracted attention last year with a new procedure with which they caused paraplegic rats to be able to walk again. The neurorehabilitation process is based, among other things, on running training and the electrical and chemical stimulation of sleeping nerve cells in the spinal cord, which no longer receive any information from the brain after an injury or a complete cut below the incision.

So far, the method has only been tested on rats. Further investigations must be carried out to determine whether it can actually be used in humans. The researchers published their results in the scientific journal Science. (ag)

Image: Dieter Schütz /

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