Stimulating a set of neurons deep in the brain has allowed rats with severe spinal cord injuries to walk almost normally again, a group of Swiss researchers reports in Science Translational Medicine this week. The rats were not completely paralyzed, but had damage to 70 to 80 percent of their reticulospinal fibers, so they had previously walked with greatly impaired strength and speed. In animals with paralyzed back legs, the technique didn’t restore walking ability, but allowed hind leg movement to reappear during swimming.
The researchers stimulated the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR), a section of the brain stem, with electrodes, to “wake up” the spinal cords of the injured rats and allow them to move again. The MLR has been shown to control movement in several vertebrate species, including cats, monkeys and rabbits, and deep brain stimulation has been used to treat some of the locomotion-related issues of Parkinson’s patients.
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