Battling paralysis

Americans’ love affair with automobiles has come with a cost higher than the price of the cars. Although stroke is the leading cause of paralysis in this country, auto accidents account for 41.3 of the nation’s paralyzing spinal cord injuries.

That’s tragic, of course, but there is some good news: Very promising research is taking place at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center and the University of Kentucky’s Spinal Cord & Brain Injury Research Center. This is a friendly red-and-blue rivalry that has implications far larger than the usual bragging rights. UofL’s and UK’s spinal cord injury research centers are among the 10 or so largest in the country.

Courier-Journal medical reporter Laura Ungar’s report, “Medical breakthroughs in the Bluegrass,” put the spotlight Sunday on some of the promising work that’s being done by Kentucky-based spinal cord injury researchers. Several of them are here because of “Bucks for Brains,” the state initiative that since 1998 has invested millions to lure top scholars to teach and to do research at UofL and UK.

These scholars and others are making crucial headway, not just in spinal cord injury research, but in other areas such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and sickle cell disease. (Ms. Ungar’s report is also available, with some extras, at .)

About 1.275 million Americans have had a spinal cord injury, and 55 percent are between 16 and 30 years old. One local beneficiary of spinal cord injury research is 39-year old Michelle Alexander. “Before I couldn’t walk or sit up or eat by myself,” she said, but now “I can do the laundry. I can stand up and cook.” For a person with paralysis, such gains are an extraordinary blessing.

Kentucky was fortunate to have political leaders who more than a decade ago grasped the import of UofL and UK being major research institutions, and it is lucky that state Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, made a family tragedy the springboard for passage of legislation in 1994 that sets aside a percentage of each speeding fine collected in Kentucky for spinal cord and head injury research.

The experts, understandably, avoid talk of a cure, but they freely discuss the steady gains being made by spinal cord injury researchers — sometimes working together, sometimes not, but aware of each other’s efforts to connect the dots that are making it possible for many of the injured to achieve a degree of the independence they once enjoyed.

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