“Salamanders are unique because they are one of the only tetrapods able to regrow spinal cords with full functionality,” says Auke Ijspeert, the head of EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory. After an injury, these amphibians are able to “magically” regrow their spinal cords and regain locomotion.
A team of scientists led by Ijspeert along with András Simon, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and Dimitri Ryczko, an assistant professor at the Université de Sherbrooke’s laboratory of motor control in Canada, is looking into exactly how the process works through a project that has just received a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council.
EPFL scientists have developed a non-invasive technique for unraveling the complex dynamics generated by spinal cord circuits to unprecedented detail, a first in functional magnetic resonance imaging that may one day help diagnose spinal cord dysfunction or injury.
The spinal cord roughly looks like a long tube, with a diameter of only 1.5 cm, and yet this crucial part of the nervous system is essential for controlling how our arms and legs move, for giving us our sense of touch as well as a notion of where our bodies are in space.
In a collaboration led by EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland and UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) in the USA, scientists have now understood the underlying biological mechanisms required for severed nerve fibers to regenerate across complete spinal cord injury, bridging that gap in mice and rats for the first time.
The adult mammalian body has an incredible ability to heal itself in response to injury. Yet, injuries to the spinal cord lead to devastating conditions, since severed nerve fibers fail to regenerate in the central nervous system. Consequently, the brain’s electrical commands about body movement no longer reach the muscles, leading to complete and permanent paralysis.