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New study: More oxygen can improve outcome in spinal cord injury

Spinal-Cord-Injuries.jpgAfter a spinal cord injury, blood flow is temporarily disrupted at the site of the injury. It resumes rapidly, however, and most doctors have assumed that blood flow then returns to near normal levels. A new study published in the May issue of Nature Medicine has demonstrated just the opposite -- spinal cord injuries lead to chronically poor blood flow and a lack of oxygen to the spinal cord's neuronal network. However, research showed that blocking a specific enzyme, and in turn pushing oxygen through the spinal cord improves the blood flow.

That improved blood flow and oxygenation may mean better outcomes in motor functioning. Patients treated with this protocol could have a better chance at walking, according to neuroscientists at the University of Alberta.

This research is important as at Tabor Law Firm we've seen firsthand how spinal cord injuries can seriously impact the injured person for the rest of their life. 

"By elevating oxygen in the spinal cord we can improve function and re-establish activity in different parts of the body," says one of the study's principal co-investigators.

The enzyme to be blocked is the Aromatic l-amino acid decarboxylase enzyme, which affects the amino acids in the diet. In specialized cells called pericytes that are wrapped around the capillaries -- our smallest blood vessels -- these enzymes cause the pericytes to contract around the capillaries like a clamp. It was when this clamping was noticed that the scientists realized that there was reduced blood flow overall.

"I thought, 'why would capillaries contract, when conventionally arteries are the main contractile vessels, and why should dietary amino acids circulating in the blood cause these contractions?'" says one of the professors. "That is just plain weird, that what you eat should influence blood flow in the spinal cord." It was a Eureka moment.

The amino acid was suppressed in an injured rat and led to it walking much better after treatment. There's still a lot of steps to be taken between the successful rat treatment and the therapy being introduced in humans.

In the meantime, the researchers speculate that other therapies will be tried, aimed at reducing long-term hypoxia around spinal cord injuries. Even deep breathing or exercise may play a role.

"It's a small but important step in the right direction," says the study's lead author "stemming from studying an obscure enzyme in the spinal cord -- and that's the beauty of basic science."

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