Researchers at the .NeuroRestore research center (Lausanne, Switzerland) successfully identified “a new and under-recognized population of neurons in the spinal cord.”(1) What makes the Vsx2 neuron different and valuable is that when stimulated, it can restore movement to persons with spinal cord injuries and partial or more extensive paralysis.
Through this multi-year study, scientists identified specific neurons that, when activated, help a person with paralysis stand up, walk, and rebuild their muscles.Medical News Today(2)
One might think that with all the money and years invested in medical research, we wouldn’t still be getting surprises like this. Instead, we have another demonstration of how complicated life forms are and how much is still out there to learn.
The Vsx2 neuron doesn’t play a role in normal motor function, e.g. walking, but is essential for recovery when there has been damage. Electrical stimulation targeted to this particular neuron makes the neuron active, and in humans, the neuron remains stimulated after electrical stimulation is stopped. You crank it up and it keeps going on its own.
To be prices, the Vsx2 neuron itself isn’t new. It was previously identified in the retina, although its exact role in vision isn’t stated. (3,4) Scientists didn’t know the gene also lived in the spinal cord or it’s ability to repair nerve damage until now. In the eye, mutations in this gene are associated with cataracts.
In the US alone, there are roughly 1.5 million people suffering from some level of paralysis due to a spinal cord injury. That’s a lot of people who could be helped by new therapies based on this finding. (Manufacturers of mobility devices might be less amused.)
I would expect to see clinical trials as both neurologists and pharmaceutical companies try to figure out how to apply this discovery to treatment. We may also see provisional approval of the treatment the Swiss researchers used on their volunteer human subjects.
This is a big deal.