Teaching the Spinal Cord to Walk

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Science  16 Jan 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5349, pp. 319-321
DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5349.319

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A flurry of recent work suggests that, with proper training, some patients with spinal cord injuries can regain at least a limited ability to walk. The idea is buttressed by a large and growing body of evidence in cats and now in humans showing that, contrary to dogma, the adult mammalian spinal cord can perform on its own, largely independent of the brain, many of the functions necessary for walking. What's more, recent data show that neural circuits governing locomotion in the spinal cord can "learn," by altering their connections. More work will be needed to confirm these encouraging, but early, results, and even supporters caution that no one knows how much improvement individual patients can expect from the treatment. Furthermore, many patients, including those whose spinal cords are completely severed and quadriplegics, will not benefit from the approach.