Paralysis Research Takes Three Baby Steps

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Along with a cure for cancer, reversing the effects of paralysis is medicine's Holy Grail, and has often seemed as unattainable. But new research is offering insights into the nature of paralysis and, possibly, how to cure it. An article in the January 20 issue of the journal Nature cites three separate studies that have pinpointed a molecule which blocks the regeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord — the nerves associated with paralysis. While other bodily tissues repair themselves when damaged, the nerves in the brain and spinal cord have no recuperative capabilities. The new research confirms that in our adult years, each time a brain cell is generated, the body produces a protein that makes regeneration impossible; using the new technique of "gene hunting," researchers isolated the gene that produces that protein. One group, based at the University of Zurich, found a way to block the protein's release in rats, and helped partially paralyzed rats walk again.

But the relevance of the findings for curing human paralysis remains murky. "This is nothing to get excited about, since it was done on animals," cautions TIME medical writer Christine Gorman. "But this is good research, and any insight we can get on how to coax the central nervous systems to repair themselves is good news." The next step for researchers is to find the molecular receptor in the brain for the protein Nogo, which blocks the cell regeneration. It's hoped that eventually researchers can design a drug to cling to the receptor and allow the regeneration of nerve cells. While efforts to allow nerve cell regeneration in other parts of the body have usually been fruitless, any insights into this problem bring hope where there once was none.