Willpower and a desire to get better may be as important to the physical recovery of spinal cord injury victims as they are to the mental recovery. A study involving laboratory rats with nearly severed spinal cords showed that, with electrical and chemical stimulation of the spinal cord, rats who were consciously engaged in regaining the ability to walk were able to regain voluntary control of their limbs. A robotic arm and harness was used to support the rats and prevent them from simply using their front legs to drag themselves along the ground. When forced to use their back legs, the rats were able to establish the necessary links between their brains, the remaining spinal cord tissue, and their hind legs to walk, run and climb stairs.
The key may be in the ability of the brain to develop new networks of neurons, literally learning walking as a new skill the way an infant does. The connections that were severed by the spinal cord injury can be replaced by new connections involving the remaining spinal cord tissue. Analysis of the motor cortexes of the rats showed new networks only among the rats that successfully re-learned to use their hind legs.
Spinal cord injury victims often face a long and difficult road to recovery. Depending on the severity of the injury, many never regain the mobility they lost. For some, however, recovery is possible. This new study emphasizes the importance of the victim’s will in re-training their bodies to overcome the damage to the spinal cord. While the new research is not a cure, it is another piece of the puzzle in helping spinal cord injury victims overcome the obstacles facing them.
New techniques are being researched every day to help spinal cord injury victims regain what was taken from them. Rehabilitation is a difficult and lengthy process for most victims. Any new developments are welcome in helping people on the road to recovery.