Some extremely important work is being done by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne.
His group has achieved the very important milestone of being able to rehabilitate a rat to walk again after causing hind leg paralysis by near complete severing of the spine.
This type of injury is common in Spinal Cord Injury and results in very weak signals being transmitted with not enough bandwidth to create any meaningful motor movement.
Next Dr. Courtine inject drugs that mimic the normal chemical signals from the brain into the damaged spinal cord. They also insert two electrodes and stimulate across the injury site.
Animals left lying idle during recovery showed improved nerve growth, but did not regain function.
Animals put on a treadmill with assisted leg movements showed some improvement, but nothing that would be considered a breakthrough.
However, when a third element was added, a goal of food, then the rats not only responded, but they learned to walk again. Some animals even regained the ability to run and climb.
This is an extraordinary result that has not been seen before. The success appears to have been achieved by three factors.
- Improved chemical environment for neural signaling using drugs and electric stim.
- The use of assisted motor training that used a robotic harness to remove balance and weight issues and allowed the animal to focus on forward movement.
- The final and most important factor seems to be the introduction of a goal and positive achievement of that goal. In this case, running after some food and finally after 30 minute work-outs achieving that goal multiple times.
Examples the concept of “success” based motor learning is seen over and over. One example would be the reliance on the “good arm” of stroke patients and consequently the loss of motor learning in the “bad arm”.
The work of Dr. Courtine could prove to be a breakthrough for Spinal Cord Injury patients and a confirms the thesis of BRIGHT that “success” based motor learning is likely a key therapeutic approach for children with Cerebral Palsy as well.