Scientists in Switzerland have restored full movement to rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, in a study that might eventually be useful for people with similar injuries.

Gregoire Courtine and his team at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne saw rats with severe paralysis walking and running again, after a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation of the spinal cord together with robotic support.

“Our rats are not only voluntarily initiating a walking gait, but they are soon sprinting, climbing up stairs and avoiding obstacles,” said Courtine, whose results from the five-year study will be published in the journal Science on Friday.

Courtine is quick to point out that it remains unclear whether a similar technique could help people with spinal cord damage. But he adds the technique does hint at new ways of treating paralysis.

Other scientists agree.

“This is ground-breaking research and offers great hope for the future of restoring function to spinal injured patients,” said Elizabeth Bradbury, a Medical Research Council senior fellow at King’s College London.

But Bradbury noted that very few human spinal cord injuries are the result of a direct cut through the cord, which is what the rats had. Human injuries are most often the result of bruising or compression, and it is unclear whether the technique could be translated to this type of injury.

It is also not known whether this kind of electro-chemical “kick-start” could help a spinal cord that has been damaged for a long time, with complications such as scar tissue, holes and a large number of nerve cells and fibers that have died or degenerated.

Nevertheless, Courtine’s work demonstrates a way of encouraging and increasing the innate ability of the spinal cord to repair itself, a quality known as neuroplasticity. Other attempts to repair spinal cords have focused on stem cell therapy.

The brain and spinal cord can adapt and recover from small injuries. This new study proves that recovery from severe injury is possible if the dormant spinal column is “woken up.”

Norman Saunders, a neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said in an e-mailed statement reacting to the study that although it remains to be seen whether the technique can be used successfully on people, “it looks more promising than previously proposed treatments for spinal cord injury.”

Bryce Vissel, head of the Neuro­degenerative Diseases Research Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, said the study “suggests we are on the edge of a truly profound advance in modern medicine: the prospect of repairing the spinal cord after injury.”

Courtine hopes to start human trials in a year or two at Balgrist University Hospital Spinal Cord Injury Center in Zurich.

— Reuters