Spinal cord injury is widely thought to be the kind of dramatic fate that befalls “other people.” However, there are an estimated 200,000 people in the United States currently affected by this very condition. These aren’t reckless daredevils whose luck has finally caught up with them, but the victims of motor vehicle accidents, same-level falls, and sporting injuries. Spinal cord injury is a potentially devastating affliction that can strike anyone, whether or not they tempt fate.
Fortunately, modern science is blazing new trails into the field of spinal cord injury treatment, raising the hope that it may not always be as debilitating as it can be now. Medical doctors and robotics engineers alike are hard at work coming up with new ways to limit initial deterioration and to help injury victims recover lost abilities. Read on to learn about some of the exciting treatments that are currently in development:
1. Ependymal Cell Replacement
At the present time, stem cell transplantation therapy allows doctors to take neural stem cells—which have the ability to develop into different kinds of cells and thus replenish those that perish en masse in an injury—and expand them in vitro to be relocated to the place of injury. To an extent, this stimulates the body to heal itself; but the effectiveness of this method depends largely on the acceptance of stem cells by the immune system. To avoid this problem, researchers are looking for a way to stimulate this healing noninvasively.
It seems now that ependymal cells are the key. Ependymal cells are neuron support cells that line the ventricles (cerebrospinal fluid-filled cavities) in the spinal column’s central canal. Their functions include transporting nutrients to neurons, removing and digesting debris, making fatty myelin sheaths to insulate neurons and to speed impulses along, etc.
Oligodendrocytes are a type of ependymal cell that manufactures and supplies myelin; it is believed if these could be somehow manipulated to greater heights on site of spinal cord injuries, healing would be faster and more complete and remove the necessity for so much probing around in the injured area. (A more recent study suggests that this method might even reverse paralysis.)
In 2010, a game-changing product called eLegs was introduced into supervised rehabilitation centers. “[The] artificially intelligent bionic device [that] allows people who have lost function of their legs to stand and walk” was developed in the Berkeley Robotics and Engineering Lab as an exoskeleton strapped on with Velcro. While eLegs are not the first exoskeleton-based walking device for paralytics, they claim that their improved knee flexion technology makes walking more natural than do other such products. Whether or not Berkeley’s eLegs live up to the promises of their developers, one thing is clear: wheelchairs are no longer the only option for those who have lost the use of their legs.
When someone sustains a spinal cord injury, the damage far exceeds that done to the disjointed spinal column, itself: when the delicate tissue within the spinal column is pinched, compressed, or otherwise disturbed, it continues to stretch, tear, or swell after the blow has done its work. The injury keeps expanding long after the initial mechanism has left the picture.
Recent inquisition into the matter suggests that the neuroprotective qualities of riluzole, a drug used to lessen the symptoms of amytrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), may make the drug valuable in protecting spinal cord cells from further damage during the latter waves of injury.
Given the possible losses in quality of life, earning potential, etc. that major injury of this sort can carry with it, no help should be withheld from the victims merely because an insurance company (their own or that of an accident’s author) is unwilling to foot the bill. If you or someone close to you is suffering from a spinal cord injury but lacks the resources to seek adequate treatment and/or rehabilitation, personal injury attorneys like Good Guys Injury Law are there to help you take advantage of all the resources available to you. For a free initial consultation, call their office at (801) 506-0800.
Image courtesy of Ekso Bionics