A pair of researchers along with a grad student at the University of Alberta have made a promising new discovery that may lead to more effective treatments for spinal cord injuries.
Dr. Karim Fouad, Dr. David Bennett and graduate student Katie Murray discovered that serotonin receptors remain active after spinal cord injuries occur, even though there is an absence of serotonin.
“The spinal cord is not just a cable,” Fouad explained.
“You can see it as an extension of the brain; it’s like a network.”
Fouad noted that while the brain and spinal cord sleep at night, serotonin regulates alertness of the brain.
“Basically, when you have low levels of serotonin, then the neurosystem is in a very quiet, sleepy state,” the researcher said.
“It’s basically coming from only one area of the brain, and that innovates also the spinal cord.”
Fouad explained that when a spinal cord injury occurs, the injured party might lose this function, causing the spinal cord to go to sleep, resulting in a lack of direct connection from the brain that turns a command into motor function as well as a sleeping nervous system.
Fouad said, in layman’s terms, that the spinal cord eventually wakes up on its own, despite the lack of any serotonin.
“The system gets independent of serotonin,” he said.
“On one hand, this now allows, to a certain degree, motor recovery.”
He added that this is the same mechanism involved with triggering spasticity.
“It’s clearly a big mechanism that we have found there and described,” Fouad said.
“It doesn’t lead you directly to treatment to promote motor recovery, but it gives us new options now that [we] can follow up.”
Fouad added that drugs for spasticity, a feature of skeletal muscle performance, are already being tested at the university.
“Now we can specifically target this receptor to reduce spasticity,” he explained.
“We don’t have to use drugs that have multiple effects on other systems.”
“This gives us a more specific approach to treat spasticity,” he added, noting that the drugs that are currently in use are pretty “rough.”
Although the research is promising, Fouad said there is still a lot more to do before this discovery can be used as an effective treatment.
Fouad and Bennett’s research was published on May 30 in the journal, Nature Medicine.