John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair

School of Clinical Medicine

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Spinal cord injury

Every year thousands of people suffer with spinal cord injuries. In Europe alone, about 10,000 individuals are paralyzed, most of them at a very young age of 18 – 45. These injuries can happen due to a variety of causes such as automobile accidents, sporting injuries, tumours & various other neurodegenerative diseases. Depending on the level of spinal cord injury, a patient’s symptoms can vary from quadriplegia – inability to breathe or move at all below the neck level (cervical) -  to loss of lower limb control, loss of bladder/bowel control, loss of sexual dysfunction (lower-level cord injuries).

One of the main focuses of research in Centre for Brain Repair is to allow nerve fibres to grow beyond the point of injury in spinal cord and restore function. We are trying to achieve this by finding ways to encourage these fibres to overcome the inhibitory environment of the scar tissue surrounding cord injuries (extrinsic factors) and developing approaches to enhance the  ability of axons to regenerate (intrinsic factors). We are also trying to develop new methods for targeting the regenerating nerve fibres to reach their appropriate target without making any false connections. Some parts of nervous system have the ability to rewire after an injury – a phenomenon known as “plasticity”. However, many molecules, including Chondroitin Sulphate Proteoglycans (CSPGs) block the ability of nerve fibres to regenerate. Research in the Brain Repair Centre is now focussed on ability of CSPG digesting enzymes in rejuvenating the ability of plasticity & regeneration of nerve fibres. We are also focussing on the role of rehabilitation & physiotherapy after trauma in promoting plasticity. A veterinary clinical trial is currently underway in which dogs who have suffered a spinal injury receive a transplant of olfactory cells. These transplants have been shown in rats to promote nerve fibre regeneration after spinal cord injury.

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