Swiss scientists have discovered how to train paralyzed rats to walk by stimulating their lower spines electrically and chemically to help them forge new neural connections.
Their research, published in the journal Science, raises hope that rehabilitative techniques could be developed to help soldiers paralyzed by spinal injuries get back on their feet again.
Researchers at the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology injected a chemical cocktail into lab rats and stimulated their spinal cords electronically, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit organization that published the findings. This reactivated the neurons controlling the rats’ hind limbs and primed them to generate neural connections that allowed them to walk again.
The researchers suspended the rats with special vests from an apparatus that held them up on their hind legs so the rats could practice moving their limbs against the ground.
Over a nine-week period, rats directed to move towards edible treats learned to walk on their own; some managed to sprint up stairs on their hind legs. Creating an incentive for them to make a decision to walk was crucial to their recovery.
Another group of rats that received the same chemical and electrical treatment, but trained on a treadmill and not motivated with treats, weren’t able to move on their own by the end of the experiments.
Hat tip: MIT Technology Review. Photo courtesy American Association for the Advancement of Science