Advances Bring First True Hope to Spinal Cord Injury Patients
Seven years ago, mountain biking near his home in Whitefish, Montana, Jeff Marquis felt confident enough to try for a jump he usually avoided. But he hesitated just a bit as he was going over. Instead of catching air, Marquis crashed.
Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury.
After 18 days on a ventilator in intensive care and two-and-a-half months in a rehabilitation hospital, Marquis was able to move his arms and wrists, but not his fingers or anything below his chest. Still, he was determined to remain as independent as possible. "I wasn't real interested in having people take care of me," says Marquis, now 35. So, he dedicated the energy he formerly spent biking, kayaking, and snowboarding toward recovering his own mobility.
For generations, those like Marquis with severe spinal cord injuries dreamt of standing and walking again – with no realistic hope of achieving these dreams. But now, a handful of people with such injuries, including Marquis, have stood on their own and begun to learn to take steps again. "I'm always trying to improve the situation but I'm happy with where I'm at," Marquis says.
The recovery Marquis and a few of his fellow patients have achieved proves that our decades-old understanding of the spinal cord was wrong. Researchers' major new insight is that recovery is still possible, even years after an injury. Only a few thousand nerve cells actually die when the spinal cord is injured. The other neurons still have the ability to generate signals and movement on their own, says Susan Harkema, co-principal investigator at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, where Marquis is being treated.
"The spinal cord has much more responsibility for executing movement than we thought before," Harkema says. "Successful movement can happen without those connections from the brain." Nerve cell circuits remaining after the injury can control movement, she says, but leaving people sitting in a wheelchair doesn't activate those sensory circuits. "When you sit down, you lose all the sensory information. The whole circuitry starts discombobulating."
Harkema and others use a two-pronged approach – both physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation – to get those spinal cord circuits back into a functioning state. Several research groups are still honing this approach, but a few patients have already taken steps under their own power, and others, like Marquis, can now stand unassisted – both of which were merely fantasies for spinal cord injury patients just five years ago.
"This really does represent a leap forward in terms of how we think about the capacity of the spinal cord to be repaired after injury," says Susan Howley, executive vice president for research for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which supports research for spinal cord injuries.
Jeff Marquis biking on a rock before his accident.
This new biological understanding suggests the need for a wholesale change in how people are treated after a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But today, most insurance companies cover just 30-40 outpatient rehabilitation sessions per year, whether you've sprained your ankle or severed your spinal cord. To deliver the kind of therapy that really makes a difference for spinal cord injury patients requires "60-80-90 or 150 sessions," she says, adding that she thinks insurance companies will more than make up for the cost of those therapy sessions if spinal cord injury patients are healthier. Early evidence suggests that getting people back on their feet helps prevent medical problems common among paralyzed people, including urinary tract infections, which can require costly hospital stays.
"Exercise and the ability to fully bear one's own weight are as crucial for people who live with paralysis as they are for able-bodied people," Howley notes, adding that the Reeve Foundation is now trying to expand the network of facilities available in local communities to offer this essential rehabilitation.
"Providing the right kind of training every day to people could really improve their opportunity to recover," Harkema says.
It's not entirely clear yet how far someone could progress with rehabilitation alone, Harkema says, but probably the best results for someone with a severe injury will also require so-called epidural electrical stimulation. This device, implanted in the lower back for a cost of about $30,000, sends an electrical current at varying frequencies and intensities to the spinal cord. Several separate teams of researchers have now shown that epidural stimulation can help restore sensation and movement to people who have been paralyzed for years.
Epidural stimulation boosts the electrical signal that is generated below the point of injury, says Daniel Lu, an associate professor and vice chair of neurosurgery at the UCLA School of Medicine. Before a spinal cord injury, he says, a neuron might send a message at a volume of 10 but after injury, that volume might drop to a two or three. The epidural stimulation potentially trains the neuron to respond to the lower volume, Lu says.
Lu has used such stimulators to improve hand function – "essentially what defines us" – in two patients with spinal cord injuries. Both increased their grip strength so they now can lift a cup to drink by themselves, which they couldn't do before. He's also used non-invasive stimulation to help restore bladder function, which he says many spinal cord injury patients care about as much as walking again.
A closeup of the stimulator.
Not everyone will benefit from these treatments. People whose injury was caused by a cut to the spinal cord, as with a knife or bullet, probably can't be helped, Lu says, adding that they account for less than 5 percent of spinal cord injuries.
The current challenge Lu says is not how to stimulate the spinal cord, but where to stimulate it and the frequency of stimulation that will be most effective for each patient. Right now, doctors use an off-the-shelf stimulator that is used to treat pain and is not optimized for spinal cord patients, Harkema says.
Swiss researchers have shown impressive results from intermittent rather than continuous epidural stimulation. These pulses better reflect the way the brain sends its messages, according to Gregoire Courtine, the senior author on a pair of papers published Nov. 1 in Nature and Nature Neuroscience. He showed that he could get people up and moving within just a few days of turning on the stimulation. Three of his patients are walking again with only a walker or minimal assistance, and they also gained voluntary leg movements even when the stimulator was off. Continuous stimulation, this research shows, actually interferes with the patients' perception of limb position, and thus makes it harder for them to relearn to walk.
Even short of walking, proper physical rehabilitation and electrical stimulation can transform the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury, Howley and Harkema say. Patients don't need to be able to reach the top shelf or run a marathon to feel like they've been "cured" from their paralysis. Instead, recovering bowel, bladder and sexual functions, the ability to regulate their temperature and blood pressure, and reducing the breakdown of skin that can lead to a life-threatening infection can all be transformative – and all appear to improve with the combination of rehabilitation and electrical stimulation.
Howley cites a video of one of Harkema's patients, Stefanie Putnam, who was passing out five to six times a day because her blood pressure was so low. She couldn't be left alone, which meant she had no independence. After several months of rehabilitation and stimulation, she can now sit up for long periods, be left alone, and even, she says gleefully, cook her own dinner. "Every time I watch it, it brings me to tears," Howley says of the video. "She's able to resume her normal life activity. It's mind-boggling."
The work also suggests a transformation in the care of people immediately after injury. They should be allowed to stand and start taking steps as soon as possible, even if they cannot do it under their own power, Harkema says. Research is also likely to show that quickly implanting a stimulator after an injury will make a difference, she says.
There may be medications that can help immediately after an injury, too. One drug currently being studied, called riluzole, has already been approved for ALS and might help limit the damage of a spinal cord injury, Howley says. But testing its effectiveness has been a slow process, she says, because it needs to be given within 12 hours of the initial injury and not enough people get to the testing sites in time.
Stem cell therapy also offers promise for spinal cord injury patients, Howley says – but not the treatments currently provided by commercial stem cell clinics both in the U.S. and overseas, which she says are a sham. Instead, she is carefully following research by a California-based company called Asterias Biotherapeutics, which announced plans Nov. 8 to merge with a company called BioTime.
Asterias and a predecessor company have been treating people since 2010 in an effort to regrow nerves in the spinal cord. All those treated have safely tolerated the cells, but not everyone has seen a huge improvement, says Edward Wirth, who has led the trial work and is Asterias' chief medical director. He says he thinks he knows what's held back those who didn't improve much, and hopes to address those issues in the next 3- to 4-year-long trial, which he's now discussing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
So far, he says, some patients have had an almost complete return of movement in their hands and arms, but little improvement in their legs. The stem cells seem to stimulate tissue repair and regeneration, he says, but only around the level of the injury in the spinal cord and a bit below. The legs, he says, are too far away to benefit.
Wirth says he thinks a combination of treatments – stem cells, electrical stimulation, rehabilitation, and improved care immediately after an injury – will likely produce the best results.
While there's still a long way to go to scale these advances to help the majority of the 300,000 spinal cord injury patients in the U.S., they now have something that's long been elusive: hope.
"Two or three decades ago there was no hope at all," Howley says. "We've come a long way."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.