After spinal cord injuries, many people become paralyzed because their brains are cut off from central pattern generators, which are networks of neurons in the spinal cord that are thought to produce an automatic walking motion.
Richard Borgens and his team comprising of physiologist Riyi Shi and chemist Youngnam Cho from the Center for Paralysis Research at the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine have discovered that the simple sugar found in the crustacean shells of lobsters is capable of targeting damaged membranes.
Professor Richard Borgens stated, “This is the most exciting development for spinal cord and brain injury since Second World War.
“I am very excited. Using chemicals to repair the damaged nervous system is a completely new way to treat people with these terrible injuries. It’s amazing one of these special chemicals would turn out to be a sugar.”
Experiment on guinea pigs
Researchers started experimenting on guinea pigs. They first isolated and compressed a segment of the rodent’s spinal cord. Subsequently, they applied the chemical and a fluorescent dye that could only enter the cells through damaged membranes.
Scrutinizing the tissues under the microscope, the investigators noted that all the neurons in the spinal cord tissue remained unstained by the dye. Moreover, while measuring the guinea pigs’ brain response, they observed that the signals failed to reach the brain because of the damaged spinal cord.
Thirty minutes after injecting the sugar mixed with sterile water into the bloodstream of the animals the researchers found that the damaged cells had been repaired.
The experts stated, “However, 30•min after injecting chitosan into the rodents, the signals miraculously returned to the animals’ brains.”
Researchers theorize that the injected sugar migrates to the spinal cord injury where it plugs holes in the coating of the nerve cells.
Borgens added, “Science has moved in a new direction. Previously we have been looking at drugs which would potentially reduce damage. Now we are looking at complete repair.”
Implications of the study
The researchers are optimistic that the treatment, which showed promise in guinea pigs, will also work equally well in human trials.
Borgens stated, “The spinal cord of a guinea pig is very similar to that of a human – it is just smaller.
“This is not like a drug which may work in some species and not in others. This is a mechanical effect. The sugar molecules migrate to the nerve injury target and repair the injured area, not the undamaged area.”
The discovery has been published in The Journal of Experimental Biology.