by William Wells
Repairing damaged spinal cords may finally be within reach, thanks to an understanding of the spinal cords hostile environment, and new methods for growing nerve cells.
The ancient Egyptians knew it. They said as much on a papyrus dated to
around 2500 B.C. that spinal
cord injury (SCI) was "an ailment not to
be treated." Santiago
Ramón y Cajal, the father of neuroscience, even knew why it
must be so. Yet here was Christopher
Reeve, the former Superman, saying that it wasnt true
that SCI didnt have to be incurable.
|A cut-away view of the spinal
By the time that Reeve was paralyzed in a riding accident on May 27,
1995, little progress had been made in reversing Ramón y Cajals
original observation. One hundred years earlier he found that nerves of
the central nervous system (CNS the brain and spinal
cord) were incapable of regenerating, unlike the nerves of the peripheral
nervous system (PNS all the other nerves that travel all over the
body). That doctrine had survived largely intact into the 1990s, making
Reeves talk of a cure sound naïve.
But now, just a few years later, Reeves optimism is ascendant.
"The regeneration field is exploding right now," says Ben
Barres of Stanford University, California. A new
generation of neuroscientists, trained in the young field of nerve growth
and guidance, is hungry to apply their knowledge to CNS regeneration.
They are starting to understand why the CNS is so hostile to nerve growth.
And they are using newly discovered stem
to generate the different types of nerve
cells needed to repopulate and rebuild a devastated spinal cord.