Between 430 and 530 people throughout Australasia are diagnosed with a spinal cord injury every year. But could a recent study provide hope for those with thoracic spinal cord injuries?
A new study indicated that half of those with thoracic spinal cord injuries may still have some connectivity. This is a revolutionary discovery given that it was previously thought a complete spinal cord injury spelt the end of any sensory nerve connections.
The blind study was carried out by Neuroscience Research Australia, HammondCare, and The University of Sydney, with a breakthrough published in January this year. It was found that half of the 23 patients with thoracic spinal cord injuries had surviving sensory nerve connections.
During the study, each of the 23 patients, and 21 subjects with no spinal injuries were placed into a highly advanced MRI machine to register the brain’s response. Scientists touched each person’s toes then analysed the data received by the MRI machine. The results were astounding, with over half of those with spinal injuries registering the touch, even if their bodies didn’t.
As a result, scientists were able to prove that in some cases, even if a patient has a complete thoracic spine injury, some sensory pathways can be preserved and the message is getting through to the brain loud and clear.
This new research, which is part of a long-standing relationship between researchers, opens up a whole new world of possibilities for those with seemingly permanent disabilities. While it’s too early to tell what can happen with science in the future, it does mean that new avenues for research and treatment can be opened. The ultimate goal, of course, is to restore some function, sensation, and movement to those suffering from spinal cord injuries.
One such treatment avenue that scientists may yet delve into after identifying those with sensory nerve connections is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS works by using a changing magnetic field to cause an electric current to flow through the brain. A magnetic field coil is placed near the head of the patient which connects to a stimulator that delivers the current to the coil.
Typically, this treatment method is used to evaluate damage by measuring connections between the skeletal muscle and the central nervous system for those suffering from conditions such as a stroke, motor neuron disease, movement disorders and multiple sclerosis. It has also been used to treat neuropathic pain.
While it may be beneficial for these conditions, TMS treatment does have adverse side effects, including hearing loss, fainting, seizures and cognitive changes. Further research into TMS and other possible treatment methods is necessary to see if it may benefit those with spinal cord injuries in light of this new, breaking study.
While the study does prove that sensory nerve connections are present in those previously thought to have no sensation at all, there is still a long way to go until anything can be done with this information. Time will only tell what this revolutionary break-through spells for those with spinal cord injuries.