Published in Science last week, and reported by NewScientist (amongst others) was some seriously amazing research on spinal cord injuries. Rats that had their spinal cords cut to simulate trauma/damage learned to walk again following a series of treatments with chemicals and electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. Part of the rehabilitation process was motivation, because initially the electrical stimulation was making the rats’ legs move involuntarily. Modifications to the special rat-harness to allow independent movement by the rats but still provide support if they fell over, and addition of a treadmill almost did the trick. The final element was motivation, in the form of a treat at the end of the treadmill. Rats were able to walk, voluntarily, for a few steps after 2-3 weeks of treatment/rehab. Longer treatment periods allowed the rats to walk further unassisted. The rats had to ‘will’ themselves to walk towards the treat, and the researchers think this has something to do with the brain’s messages down the spinal cord kick-starting the growth of nerves at the site of the spinal injury. I’ve simplified it rather a lot, but the implications for this kind of research for humans with certain kinds of spinal injuries is exciting.
See the video of rats walking from the New Scientist website.