According to a recent paper in Cells Reports, labs from Case Western Reserve and the University of Kentucky’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC) were able to demonstrate the existence of a parallel neural network that could potentially restore diaphragm function after spinal cord injury.
This ghost network operates entirely separate from the brain, which has long been considered the only organ capable of directing respiratory function, and appears able to instruct the diaphragm to contract when properly activated.
While practical solutions are a long way away, the implications of this research for quadriplegics, many of whom rely on a respirator to breathe, are enormous. Constant mechanical ventilation increases the risk of fatal infection, which is the leading cause of death for spinal cord injury patients. Reducing reliance on ventilators would go a long way towards improving quality and longevity of life for those with devastating spinal cord injuries.
But perhaps more amazing is that this research is credited to a group of young scientists – one not yet graduated from college.
Warren Alilain heads the lab at SCoBIRC where Rachel Maggard, Lydia Hager and Daimen Stoltz work. Alilain has long been researching combination therapies to restore breathing function to patients with older cervical spinal cord injuries.
“Jared Cregg and Jerry Silver [my colleagues at Case Western] have been looking into ways to restore diaphragm function after spinal cord injury for a while, and their research uncovered this latent network in neonatal mice about two years ago,” Alilain said. “The initial neonatal results from Case Western were intriguing, but since most spinal cord injuries occur in adults, it was an important step to replicate the results in adult rats, and Jared knew my lab had the appropriate experience.”