Does rat therapy hold promise for paralyzed people?

A recent story by National Geographic should provide hope to Miami residents trying to recover from a severe spinal injury. According to the story, a team of neuroscientists recently used a robotic harness to help paralyzed rats walk again. Rats, of course, are far different than are humans. But the neuroscientists’ work still holds promise for people who dream of walking again following a spinal injury.

According to the National Geographic story, researchers say that the successful experiment represents the first time that severely injured spinal cords have been brought back to life. The scientists working on the project say that the techniques developed during it might hold some promise for disabled people.

For the study, researchers put 17 of 27 rats on a physical therapy program and administered chemical injections and electric stimulation directly to the animals’ spinal cords. The physical therapy included the use of a treadmill and a robotic harness that suspended the rats upright but did not move them forward.

According to National Geographic, the treadmill exercise summoned reflexes that in some ways make walking a passive activity. The hope is that this technique — making walking something that can happen even if disabled people’s brains can’t send signals to that part of their bodies — can one day help disabled people learn to walk again, too.

The rats that did walk thanks to this therapy did not exhibit a typical rat-type walking style. Instead, they walked with an upright, mostly humanlike gait. Researchers also had to rely on jolts of electricity to stimulate the rats’ walking.

Source: National Geographic, “Paralyzed Rats Walk Again, Thanks to Electricity, Chemicals-And Chocolate,” Rachel Kaufman, May 31, 2012