Their results could lead to drugs that might restore some degree of mobility to the 30,000 people worldwide afflicted each year with spinal-cord injuries.
The researchers at MIT and the Karolinska Institute found that neural stem cells in the adult spinal cord are limited to a layer of cube- or column-shaped, cilia-covered cells called ependymal cells. These cells make up the thin membrane lining the inner-brain ventricles and the connecting central column of the spinal cord.
"We have been able to genetically mark this neural stem cell population and then follow their behavior," Meletis said. "We find that these cells proliferate upon spinal cord injury, migrate toward the injury site and differentiate over several months."
Upon injury, ependymal cells proliferate and migrate to the injured area, producing a mass of scar-forming cells, plus fewer cells called oligodendrocytes. The oligodendrocytes restore the myelin, or coating, on nerve cells' long, slender, electrical impulse-carrying projections called axons. Myelin is like the layer of plastic insulation on an electrical wire; without it, nerve cells don't function properly.
"The limited functional recovery typically associated with central nervous system injuries is in part due to the failure of severed axons to regrow and reconnect with their target cells in the peripheral nervous system that extends to our arms, hands, legs and feet," Meletis said. "The function of axons that remain intact after injury in humans is often compromised without insulating sheaths of myelin."
If scientists could genetically manipulate ependymal cells to produce more myelin and less scar tissue after a spinal cord injury, they could potentially avoid or reverse many of the debilitating effects of this type of injury, the researchers said.