Researchers in Australia have discovered that half of all patients with major spinal cord injuries display surviving sensory nerve connections.
Dr. Sylvia Gustin of Neuroscience Research Australia recorded how 23 people living with severe spinal cord injuries responded to touch detected by advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The finding, which astonished scientists, showed that many people, who completely lacked feeling in their extremities, were still registering the touch in their brains.
“We found using functional MRI, activity in the brain was detected in 48 percent of patients with clinically complete spinal cord injury,” Dr. Gustin said. “This means despite previously believing the communication to the brain had been severed in the injury, the messages are still being received by the brain.
“This is a very exciting breakthrough study,” she added.
A Spinal Cord Injury Victim Helping with the Study
James Stanley, 26, had a freak surfing accident seven years ago.
“I pushed up on the board, which caused a hyper-extension in my spine,” Stanley said.
“Over a period of about one to two hours, the swelling was quite severe and caused paraplegia. It is very rare.”
The injury left him completely paralyzed from the waist down.
Mr. Stanley was eager to participate in the ground breaking Australian study.
“In this study, I had to be put in an MRI scan. Sylvia brushed a plastic fork along my toe to see whether, even though I can’t feel it, the brain registered that touch,” he said.
He was excited to find out his results.
“They found that when they brushed the fork, it actually registered a connection – it registered the touch,” he said.
“It was awesome and amazing to hear because seven years ago, I was told once that you’re a complete paraplegic, there are no more avenues we can take to develop your strength or feeling coming back in your legs.”
“Hearing that was awesome because with further developed treatment and rehab, there is a possibility of change for me.
The Path to New Spinal Treatments
The discovery offers cautious new hope to patients like James Stanley who have been told that they will never walk again, according to Dr. Gustin.
Developing treatments to enhance the surviving sensory nerve connections is the future goal. These treatments could lead to brain computer interface techniques or stimulation of the brain at the spinal cord level.
To see what areas of the brain remain active, researchers seek similar MRI scans offered to all new spinal injury patients.
“This basic research breakthrough is very important to develop novel therapies which are targeting the sensory network connections which found have actually survived,” Dr. Gustin, said.
Neuroscience Research Australia, the Pain Management Research Institute and the University of Sydney participated in the collaborative research, which was published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.
The Reality of Spinal Cord Injury
Most spinal cord injuries are the result of auto or motorcycle accidents, falls or work related injuries. The spinal cord injury is devastating, not only physically, psychologically and emotional but also financially. The sum of a lifetime of lost income, rehabilitation, vocational retraining, special needs and equipment is astronomical. It is imperative that anyone who suffers a spinal cord injury seeks the help of a qualified spinal cord injury attorney to help recover the compensation needed to cover the immense cost.