Until recently, most of the research on spinal cord injuries (SCI) has failed to focus on the effects of spinal cord damage on brain function. Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical School (UM SOM) are now discovering that SCI can produce extensive and continuous brain inflammation, leading to nerve cell damage and cognitive complications. Unfortunately, little research has been done on whether these problems occur after and due to injury to the spinal cord.
The research that found a link
Studies out of UM SOM are the first to show that an isolated SCI can in fact cause a progressive decrease of brain cells in key regions of the brain. This research is elucidating the connection between spinal cord trauma and brain damage.
Brain degeneration due to SCI has been demonstrated in a number of animals and experimental mechanical models. Researchers at UM SOM have also discovered the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for these changes and have even identified drugs which can assist in preventing brain injuries such as cell death, tissue inflammation, signs of depression, and decline in cognitive abilities.
Spinal cord injuries were shown to result in chronic neuropathic pain the correlates with inflammation in the brain’s pain regulatory areas, located in the thalamus. The thalamus functions to relay sensory signals to the cerebral cortex.
What mice can teach us about SCI and brain damage
Within mice that had sustained SCI, it has been observed that their brains exhibit neurodegeneration and behavioral dysfunction, as well as negative effects on cognition and inflammation. The SCI caused impairment in the mouse’s ability to retain memories, and a loss of neurons in the hippocampus as much as twelve weeks after the injury.
SCI was also found to trigger activation of glial cells called microglia, which are the main immune defense of the central nervous system. Scientists believe that this activation is one cause of the chronic neurodegeneration in response to SCI. Systemically administered inhibitors were found to reduce the microglial activation and restrict neurodegeneration within the brain, as well as slowing cognitive decline and depression.
Even though the correlation between SCI and brain injury is in its infancy, it’s studies like this one that are bringing us step-by-step closer to discovering new treatments and therapies.