Christopher Reeve met with Institute scientists during his visit to Australia in 2003 and was impressed with their work in spinal injuries research. Professor Paxinos is a world leader in the preparation of brain atlases, being the author of atlases of human, monkey, rat and mouse brains used world-wide by neuroscientists in all areas.
As a geographic map to a traveller, a map of the spinal cord is needed by scientists studying the spinal cord of humans. Currently the principal animal for spinal cord injury research is the rat. There is no comprehensive and accurate atlas of the rat spinal cord; indeed, the problem is greater: there is no comprehensive structural study of the spinal cord of any species, including humans.
A new project supported by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation is designed to redress this shortcoming. The results will provide (a) the fundamental structural map of the rat spinal cord, (b) make relevant comparisons with the human spinal cord and demonstrate the anatomical principles or generalizations of its organization, and (c) provide the 3D stereotaxic space designed to become the knowledge management environment for experimental and, eventually, clinical observations.
Though not itself directed at a cure for the consequences of spinal cord injury, the project will accelerate progress of such research because it will permit scientists to navigate seamlessly between the rat and human spinal cords to test hypotheses inspired by human considerations and relate data from experiments in animals back to humans.
The proposed description of the structure of the spinal cord will be based on a comprehensive use of neurochemical markers (chemoarchitecture). Many pathways in the nervous system contain a particular protein which can be demonstrated in tissue sections using a technique called immunohistochemistry that involves the use of specific antibodies. The often distinct distribution of these chemicals in the rat spinal cord is like a "signature" for one type of nerve cell and its processes.
Because most of the neurochemical proteins are conserved across species, they are present not only in a particular group of nerve cells in the rat, but also in its homologue (corresponding structure) in the human. The study will, for the first time, comprehensively depict transverse and horizontal sections, reproduce these in 3D and make some parallel observations in the human spinal cord (when tissue becomes available), thus supporting both experimental and clinical approaches.