02 August 2017

new hope nerves will regrow

A new surgery technique prompts severed nerves to ‘regrow’ connections to the spinal cord.

THE quest to repair spinal cord injuries is a medical holy grail. Now, we’re beginning to understand how it could be done. And the fix may already be in our own bodies.

A study by Kings College London examined a new surgery technique capable of reconnecting complex sensory neurons to the spinal cord. Specifically, the Frontiers in Neurology study looked at how the spinal cord of a rat went about completing the repair itself.

The discovery could lead to new treatments, even for cases where the spinal cord has been severed.


The British and Swedish researchers found that surgery could prompt small neural offshoots to sprout themselves, reconnecting severed circuits.

Understanding this regrowth could have huge implications for previously untreatable nervous-system damage.

“Doctors previously considered this type of spinal cord injury impossible to repair,” says King’s College researcher Nicholas James. “These torn root injuries can cause serious disability and excruciating pain.”

The brain is connected to the nerve cells in the rest of our bodies through the spinal cord. This data-cable relays muscle movements and sensory data.

Where these neurons merge with the cord, it does so through a bundled structure called a root.

It’s often these roots that get torn in traumatic injuries, disconnecting parts of the body from neural feedback.

While surgery techniques appear largely successful at replacing motor-neuron roots, sensory roots have proven to be more problematic.

Former rugby league player Alex McKinnon suffered a spinal cord injury in 2014. Could new research benefit cases such as his? Picture: Adam Taylor

Former rugby league player Alex McKinnon suffered a spinal cord injury in 2014. Could new research benefit cases such as his? Picture: Adam TaylorSource:News Corp Australia


The Kings College researchers say they have found a new surgical technique for reconnecting sensory roots.

They have been cutting sensory nerve cells out of the damaged root, and embedding the remainder deep inside the spinal cord.

When tested on patients, some spinal reflexes returned — indicating the root had reconnected with the spinal cord to create a functional neural circuit.

This spurred the examination of rats to determine what is going on.

The deliberately severed sensory neuron roots to the spine, waited, and then surgically treated the nerve before reattaching it. Electrical tests later confirmed a circuit had been re-established.

The rats were then dissected to take a close look at what had happened to the sensory nerve root.

The discovery that the body — when prompted by such delicate surgery — responds with its own neural regrowth has exciting implications.

“The strategy of encouraging new growth from spinal neurons could potentially be of use in other injuries of the nervous system,” researcher Thomas Carlstedt says.

The hope is it may lead to new treatments where a severed spinal cord can be reconnected by implanting grafts that encourage nerve regrowth.

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