Scientists have recently released data which shows that a drug-based therapy might actually restore breathing to individuals who are paralyzed from the neck down due to a spinal injury—until now, such patients often had to rely on a ventilator to help with breathing.
How Paralysis Can Affect Breathing
As an organ in the body, one’s lungs aren’t actually affected by spinal cord damage or paralysis—but breathing can become difficult or impossible if any or all of the muscles that control the process of breathing are affected by a “disconnect” with the brain. This includes the muscles of the chest, the abdomen and the diaphragm. Normally these muscle groups work together in a rhythm; the muscles contract in unison to open and expand the lungs, a vacuum is created which then draws air into the lungs. Similarly, our body is able to tell this group of muscles to relax and contract in a different combination that can push air out of the lungs. We call these complex processes inhaling and exhaling, and we complete the circuit anywhere from 17,000 to 30,000 times a day. Again, if the brain is unable to continuously and reliably send signals to these muscles—most often due to some degree of spinal injury—then the seemingly simple process of breathing breaks down if not stopped altogether.
Researchers May Have Found a Unique Therapy
While surgeons have long been looking at ways to repair spinal cord damage and restore brain connectivity with other parts of the body, the latest discovery is a much different approach. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have found that, while still in the early stages, a combinative drug and light therapy known as optogenetics can actually activate what they believe is an alternative nerve pathway for controlling breathing.
Dr. Jerry Silver, a lead on the project, explained the discovery by likening the results to tapping into “…a primitive response that has been kept in the spinal cord for emergencies, like gasping and screaming in response to danger.” He continued by saying, “Ultimately, the goal of this research would be to free people with these neck injuries from having to use mechanical ventilators. [Currently,] infections and other complications from mechanical ventilators are a leading cause of death after spinal cord injuries.” Dr. Silver and his team do want to point out that they still have a long way to go, what they have witnessed so far is the ability to bring back breathing “movements” in lab rats that have had their spinal cord severed. Whether or not the muscle movement is enough to facilitate adequate lung function will require further testing.
Ultimately, this news offers hope to the some 250,000 to 400,000 people living with a spinal cord injury in the U.S.; added to by as many as 12,000 new cases each year. While treating humans with this therapy could be far in the future, the work also helps to improve the medical community’s understanding of how the spinal network functions—allowing for other solutions and treatments to be developed and improved upon.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.