Spinal injury research offers hope for those with severe spinal injuries

Promising new research appears to restore breathing in rats paralysed from the neck down by a spinal injury, according to medical researchers, giving hope to people suffering from spinal injuries.

The study by medical researchers, published in Cell Reports suggests that the brain may not be needed for respiration if a nerve pathway in the spine can be awakened.

In normal instances, messages to and from the brain control breathing, however the study has suggested that this may not always be required. This research is particularly important for those suffering from spinal cord injuries high up in the neck whereby messages to and from the brain cannot get through and therefore the use of a ventilator or mechanical assistance is required in order to breathe.

Medical researchers from Cape Western Reserve University used a drug and light therapy known as optogenetics which appeared to control the body’s main muscle of respiration – the diaphragm. The live adult rats that were used in the research had severed spinal cords which meant that the brain could not be responsible for the movement or breathing shown in the diaphragm.

It is understood that the treatment in this instance worked by stopping other nerve signals.

Although the research provides a promising outcome for those suffering from severe spinal injuries, conclusions cannot yet be drawn as to whether this method alone would be sufficient to sustain life. This research alone is not sufficient enough to start testing on people suffering with spinal injuries however, it paves the way for future research and testing which could ultimately culminate in those with severe spinal injuries no longer relying on ventilators to breathe.

Those who are dependent on ventilators and other mechanical assistance in order to breathe are at risk of infections and other complications so the research and potential for these devices to no longer be required is likely to be welcomed, given the potential improvement on the overall quality of life it may provide.

The findings of the recent research also have the potential to impact the overall volume of spinal injury claims given the scope to alter the quality of life for those with life-altering spinal injuries and therefore may impact the overall volume of medical negligence claims as a whole.

Dr Jerry Silver, on conducting the research said:

“Ultimately, the goal of this research would be to free people with these neck injuries from having to use mechanical ventilators. Infections and other complications from mechanical ventilators are a leading cause of death after spinal cord injuries.”

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