Updated on: 2/22/2019
Spinal cord injuries are among the most debilitating form of injury that human beings can experience, largely due to the fact that the spinal cord plays a large role in most of the bodily functions and sensations that we become accustomed to throughout our lives.
Although science has come a long way in helping us diagnose and treat spinal cord injuries, there is currently no “cure” for a victim who has experienced serious trauma and lost some degree of physical ability. But recent research and analysis of certain species of reptiles has helped scientists gain some insight into the potential future of spinal cord injury treatment and rehabilitation.
Many species of reptiles – including salamanders and certain types of lizards – are able to drop their tails in order to help them escape predators. Since a reptilian tail is just an extended portion of their spine, researchers were curious if learning more about this process would help them better develop solutions for victims of spinal cord injuries.
When a human loses a limb, a blood clot acts as a “plug” to the wound. Then various types of skin cells migrate toward the area to form scar tissue underneath the blood clot, which eventually falls off in the form of a scab. What’s left underneath is the freshly generated layer of skin, which makes up the extent of the healing process for a human being.
But in salamanders and lizards, the process is much different.
How Salamanders Teach Us About Spinal Cord Injuries
Much like in humans, reptiles’ bodies use a blood clot to plug up a fresh wound. But instead of skin cells creating scar tissue, there is actually a regeneration of tissue and cartilage occurring underneath the clot. The tissue eventually connects to the previously torn nerve endings of the spinal cord, and muscle fibers grow around the outside of the tissue to encase the new structure.
In some of the lizard species studied by scientists, the new limb doesn’t necessarily become an exact replica of what previously existed, but is actually more of a biological prosthetic. That’s still more effective than an inorganic prosthetic.
In studying salamanders, however, scientists found that the repaired limb actually is a perfect biological replica. What’s more promising is the fact that this process applies to more than just a tail; scientists found the same results for various extremities, organs, the spinal cord, and even parts of the eyes and brain.
Learning how this process works is just the first step in developing a strategy for new treatment options. Discovering how the process works on a much more granular level, however, has given researchers hope that certain types of stem cell treatments may make it possible for spinal cord injury victims to make much more dramatic recoveries in the future.