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Antidepressant Could Help Reverse Paralysis

Drug Boosts Cell Growth, Protects Cells in Rats With Spinal Cord Injury
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WebMD Health News

May 24, 2004 -- An experimental antidepressant drug is showing promise as a pioneering treatment for spinal cord injury and paralysis, a new study shows.

In a study involving rats, researchers found that the drug rolipram helps boost the inner workings of nerve cells. This boost may help bridge the signaling problems between nerve cells that occur after spinal cord injury, writes lead researcher Damien D. Pearse, PhD, with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

His study appears in the June issue of Nature Medicine.

Spinal cord injury as been the subject of numerous research projects over the past two decades. With other types of nerve injuries -- like injured nerves in a leg -- the nerves may heal themselves. However, that does not happen with the spinal cord. Researchers have been trying to encourage nerve fibers to grow, to repair damage from spinal cord injury.

One drug is available for limiting the extent of spinal cord damage directly after spinal cord injury. The drug, methylprednisolone, must be given within hours of an injury, and experts have debated its usefulness. Other drugs are aimed at minimizing spinal damage following accidents. Other researchers are working to reduce the immune system response to spinal injury that contributes to paralysis.

Rolipram is a new type of antidepressant drug not available in the U.S. In addition to its antidepressant effects, it appears to be able to suppress immune system function.

Pearse's study involved grafting healthy nerve cells to the injured area while also giving the rats a combination treatment of rolipram and another molecule called cyclic AMP, which aids cell production in damaged areas.

The spine-injured rats showed great progress -- 70% improvement in walking ability after receiving the combination, reports Pearse. The combination treatment helped protect nerve fibers from dying and promoted new growth of fibers into and beyond the injured area.

"The amount of functional recovery reported after the combination strategy described in this paper is quite impressive," says Naomi Kleitman, PhD, a program director for spinal cord research with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a branch of the NIH.

The report helps build on other research also hailed as "promising," says Kleitman in a news release.

This newest finding "opens up new possibilities for treatment" for people with spinal cord injury, says co-researcher Mary Bartlett Bunge, PhD, also with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, in a news release.

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