Discovery may lead to new treatments for spinal cord injuries

Each year, around 11,000 people in the U.S. suffer spinal cord injuries. Because falls are one of the most common causes of these injuries, experts estimate that the incidence of spinal cord injuries will increase as our population continues to age. For this reason, developing an understanding of the ways in which these injuries work is becoming a priority for researchers across the country.

Spinal cord injuries are particularly serious, of course, because nerve fibers cannot be regenerated by the body. The body can, however, reroute signals through undamaged tissue and this ability may be key to developing new treatment strategies in the future.

In a study recently published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, researchers at the Salk Institute describe how one protein, known as P45, may play a role in the neurological rerouting process. The protein may provide doctors with a means to promote the recovery of some function for those who have suffered a spinal cord injury.

The prognosis for someone who has suffered a spinal cord injury depends on the amount of damage sustained by healthy tissue. The initial injury causes its share of damage to the body, but it also causes a chain reaction at the cellular level that can severely injure otherwise healthy tissue. This post injury chain reaction may even be more destructive than the initial injury in some cases. The protein P45 may, however, be the key to stopping this process.

What causes the chain reaction of cell death is the presence of a number of different proteins, all of which react with one another to cause injury. P45, however, appears to be what is known as the antagonist for this reaction. An antagonist is a molecule that is able to block the site on another molecule responsible for making a particular reaction happen. In this case, it means that P45 renders two other molecules unable to react, which in turn prevents cell death.

This discovery is exciting, but researchers are quick to point out that their findings are preliminary and more research is necessary. They hope, however, that further research on P45 will help them develop pharmaceutical treatments specifically targeted to preventing damage to nerve tissue after spinal cord injuries. In theory, these new treatments could play an important role as part of a larger strategy to help those who have suffered spinal cord injuries to maintain as much function as possible.