With careful training using a robotic harness, and a special chemical cocktail designed to stimulate brain cells, rats with spinal cord injuries were able to re-learn how to walk. Scientists in Switzerland say the tests suggest humans with paralysis due to spinal cord injuries may regain some nerve activity. The therapy takes advantage of the nervous system’s inherent plasticity, in which neural networks can be rewired to take on different tasks. Areas of the motor cortex were able to establish new connections to the rats’ hind limbs, which had been paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries in a manner similar to spinal cord paralysis in people.
After two weeks of training, the rats took their first voluntary steps on their paralyzed legs. Within five or six weeks, all the rats in the study were able to walk bipedally, on their hind legs, for extended periods, Courtine et al. say.
“This is the world-cup of neurorehabilitation,” Courtine said in an EPFL news release. “Our rats have become athletes when just weeks before they were completely paralyzed. I am talking about 100 percent recuperation of voluntary movement.”
This is still a long way from working in humans, however. But human clinical trials are already on the horizon, set to start within two years in Zurich, according to EPFL.