Electrical Jolts to the Brain Help Rats Walk

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Rats with spinal cord injuries can have their walking abilities strengthened through stimulation of the brain, according to researchers present at the October 15th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. They hope this will lead to great improvements in treatment for humans with spinal cord injuries.

The process is called deep brain stimulation, and is already known for easing movement issues associated with Parkinson’s disease. It requires a surgically placed device in the brain, which discharges small electrical pulses in targeted, hard-to-reach areas.

In the study, the targeted area was a region in the midbrain which sends directions to the spinal cord to facilitate walking.

Brian Noga, Ian Hentall, and associates at the University of Miama’s Miller School of Medicine, gave rats in the study mild, moderate, or severe bruises, which partially severed nerves in the spinal cord, while still leaving some intact. The rats were then watched for 10 weeks as they walked on treadmills.

These injuries to the rats were in line with what is common for human spinal cord injuries. Roughly 60 percent of these type of injuries are labeled “incomplete.”

There was a clear improvement in walking speed and endurance for the injured rats when receiving deep brain stimulation. The most notable improvements were in the mice with injuries minor enough to leave them able to support themselves.  However, some rats that could not support themselves still showed stepping movements while being stimulated.

Noga hopes that these results suggest that the ability to walk can be strengthened even without an intact spinal cord.

We are still miles away from any treatment like this in humans, however deep brain stimulation does already have FDA approval. Could this be the future of physical therapy treatment?

Tanya Lewis, intern for Science News, has more coverage of the annual meeting for the Society of Neuroscience.

 

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