Radical Cooling May Minimize Spinal Cord Damage

When a person breaks his or her neck, the delicate and vital nerve tissue of the spinal cord can be torn, setting in motion a cascade of dying nerves up and down the spine. But a new technique that runs icy cold brine into the veins of spine injury victims to reduce their body temperature to 92 degrees for two days appears to hold promise to protect them from the cascading nerve damage and offer them hope to move and feel again.

"You have these secondary injury mechanisms that lead to progression of damage, and that's where we are working in the laboratory to develop new strategies, new drugs, new therapies to target that secondary injury," said Dalton Dietrich III, of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. According to the most recent data available, there are about 11,000 new cases of spinal cord injuries annually in America.

 As of June 2006, there were some 253,000 people living with such injuries. In animal studies, Dietrich said, "we found that if you lowered the temperature of the spinal cord after injury, we could actually improve motor function. The rats walked better. Also, if you looked at the pathology of the spinal cord, there was preserved tissue."

With such promising results, an experimental study was begun in humans, with the first patient being "cooled" in January 2006. "So far, it looks like it's safe," Dietrich said. "We've gotten some good results. It appears to limit secondary injuries that can lead to progression. Spinal cooling does a lot of good things. Cooling a patient a couple degrees seems to work very, very well."

Unlike drugs, which tend to work on just one tiny issue at a time, cooling seems to target multiple trauma issues at once, stopping nerve cells from dying, Dietrich said. This protects the communication between brain and muscles, and vice versa, opening the way for the patient to regain the ability to move, walk and feel in the weeks and months following his injury.


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