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Scientists Coax Nerve Fibers to Regrow After Spinal Cord Injury

In tests on rats, researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan have developed a treatment that helps spinal cord nerves regrow after injury.//

The findings will be published in the July 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study has implications for treating people who may face amputation of an arm after a violent injury in which nerves are wrenched from the spinal cord. The new treatment currently is under study for other types of traumatic spinal cord injury.

The researchers treated experimental nerve injuries in rats with an enzyme - called sialidase - that they isolated from bacteria. Four weeks later, more than twice as many nerves in the spinal cords of sialidase-treated rats grew new nerve fibers compared to untreated rats.

The experimental injury in rats mimicked an injury in humans that may occur during childbirth or in motorcycle accidents when an arm is pulled violently away from the body. This injury causes nerves to be yanked out of the spinal cord. Without these nerves, the arm loses feeling and muscle tone. Without muscle tone, the body cannot support the weight of the arm, and many health problems can develop.

While surgeons can sometimes reattach the yanked nerves to the spinal cord, this treatment is not as effective as physicians or patients would like. This is in part because nerves in the brain and spinal cord, unlike those in the rest of the body, fail to grow new nerve fibers. Nerves in the brain and spinal cord are surrounded by signals from other cells in the injured area that stop them from growing.

“Molecules in the environment of the injured spinal cord are specifically instructing the nerve end not to regrow,” says the study’s director, Ronald Schnaar, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and neuroscience in the Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences at Hopkins.

“The brain and spinal cord are extremely crowded with nerves a
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