Over 200,000 Americans are affected by spinal cord injuries, with approximately 20,000 new cases every year. While these injuries may damage any part of the spinal column, if the nerves that run through the spine are severed, paralysis and impaired use of muscles, lungs, bladder and the digestive system can be the result. A study carried out by the Mayo Clinic has shown that it’s possible to regenerate the nerves in the spine and restore bladder function and control. While so far this has only been achieved in mice, it does shed hope for people with severe spinal cord injuries.
The bladder is one of the organs that suffers most during injuries of this type. Prior to an injury, signals from the brain via the spinal cord control our bladder without the need for any conscious thought. However, following an injury, these signals are no longer able to travel through the spine. This can lead to urinary tract infections and kidney stones, and it’s hardly surprising that regaining bladder control has been identified as one of the most important functions to recover following injuries of this nature.
So far efforts to restore the nerves have proved unsuccessful, mainly due to the enzyme that allows natural nerve regeneration to occur being inhibited. However by grafting nerve cells to the site of the injury and adding chrondoitinase, the inhibited enzyme, together with a fibroblast growth factor to the severed spinal cords of mice, the spinal cord was able to regenerate. While this didn’t allow the mice to become mobile again, their bladder function was significantly improved over the following six months, with the mice being able to empty their bladders more completely, and wilfully contract their muscles in order to pass urine. Their bladders were also able to hold almost three times the volume of urine as those of untreated mice. In addition, by adding the fibroblast growth factor into the mix, the nerves in the spinal cord grew by up to 12mm in length, giving hope that they would grow back far enough to reconnect the bladder to the spinal cord.
This regeneration is great news for sufferers of spinal cord injuries and while tests with humans are still some time away, the study indicates that regaining bladder control is possible.