Brain and Spinal Cord Injury

Brain and spinal cord injuries are particularly tragic in that most victims are in the prime of life at the time they are injured. To date, most face years of dependency on others for their basic needs. Spinal cord injuries alone cost the United States at least $9.7 billion per year for medical care, equipment and disability support, and approximately two million people worldwide are living with spinal cord injury. Recent research, however, points to hope on the horizon for mitigating or even reversing the damage inflicted by brain and spinal cord trauma.

Sanford-Burnham research on brain and spinal cord injury

Professor Evan Snyder and his team are leaders in the application of stem cell biology to treat the injured nervous system. Dr. Snyder and his colleagues transfer neuronal stem cells, immature cells that have the capacity to become different types of nervous system cells, into animal models of trauma. In some of these models, including a rat model of spinal cord injury, they see dramatic improvements—partially paralyzed rats regain their ability to walk at close to normal capacity. Dr. Snyder’s team found that the stem cells can not only replace missing cells but also stimulate "self-repair" by releasing factors that nourish and protect damaged neurons and help them to recover.

Dr. Snyder and his colleagues have formed a Southern California Stem Cell Consortium, which meets monthly at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and were awarded one of the five grants by the National Institutes of Health to teach a course on stem cells to the international scientific community.

In addition to repairing and growing neurons in cases of spinal cord injury, it is vital to ensure that neurons make appropriate connections with the muscles whose contractions they must control. Professor Barbara Ranscht and her team are uncovering the cues that guide growing nerve cells to their proper destinations. Delineating this code should help researchers devise the most effective therapeutic strategies possible, ensuring that new or recovering nerve cells grow and connect in a manner that restores movement to those incapacitated by brain and spinal cord injury.

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