Christopher Reeve, a quadripelegic since his traumatic fall from a horse resulted in the severing of nerves in his spinal cord, always held fast to the belief that one day he would walk again. Reeve didn’t survive long enough to realize his dream, but today, scores of research scientists, many funded by his foundation, now believe that nerve regeneration is not only possible, it is within reach.
This month, neuroscientists at MIT, lead by Dr Rutledge Ellis-Behnke, repaired traumatic nerve injuries in hamsters with severed optical nerves, not by surgery, but by causing the nerves to grow together and mend. Their breakthrough was founded in the fledgling science of nanotechnology, which applies engineering on a microscopic scale.
Most importantly, the healing was observable after only one day.
“We made a cut, put the material in, and then we looked at the brain over different time points,” said Ellis-Behnke. “The first thing we saw was that the brain had started to heal itself in the first 24 hours. We had never seen that before — so that was very surprising.”
The restored eyesight was confirmed when the hamsters were able to complete visually driven tasks to earn food rewards.
Ellis-Behnke sees this as the first step on the long road to human applications. “Eventually what we would look at is trying to reconnect disconnected parts of the brain during stroke and trauma.” Such therapy would benefit individuals whose quality of life might otherwise diminish with loss of functionality in the brain for tasks like communication. Ellis-Behnke’s team included scientists from MIT and Hong Kong University.