Scientists find promising red-light therapy for spinal cord injuries

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Scientists at the University of Birmingham, UK, have developed a new light therapy that could potentially repair nerve connections in people with spinal cord injuries (SCI).

This therapy, which involves directing red and near-infrared light to the injury site, has shown significant promise in recent studies.

The research, detailed in the journal Bioengineering and Translational Medicine, explores the use of a specific wavelength of red light (660nm) to enhance the survival and regrowth of nerve cells.

Professor Zubair Ahmed and his team conducted experiments using cell models of SCI to determine the optimal frequency and duration of light exposure needed to maximize recovery.

They discovered that exposing these cells to the 660nm wavelength for one minute daily over five days increased the survival rate of the cells by 45%.

The protective and regenerative effects of this light therapy, termed photobiomodulation (PBM), were evident as it not only preserved the existing nerve cells but also stimulated the growth of new ones. This dual action is key to its effectiveness.

Further investigations involved preclinical models of SCI, where researchers applied the light therapy using two methods: an implantable device and transcutaneous delivery, which involves placing the light source directly against the skin.

Both methods yielded positive results, showing significant restoration of movement and sensation, reduction in tissue scarring, and regeneration of nerve cells at the injury site. This treatment was administered for one minute per day across seven days.

The study also revealed improvements in protein levels linked to nerve regeneration and enhanced connections between cells in the spine’s damaged area. Such findings are particularly notable as this is the first comparison of transcutaneous and direct light delivery in treating SCI.

The exciting outcomes have spurred further development, with plans underway to create an implantable device suitable for human use.

This device aims to offer a new treatment option during surgeries for spinal injuries, which are typically focused only on stabilizing the affected spinal bones.

Photobiomodulation targets the mitochondria within cells, which play a crucial role in energy production.

By enhancing mitochondrial function, PBM boosts the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the cell, thus fostering cell survival and reducing inflammation and cell death following an injury.

The therapy has a basis in other medical applications as well. It’s already approved for treating oral mucositis, a painful condition arising from cancer treatments, demonstrating its effectiveness in reducing inflammation and promoting healing.

The team, led by Professor Ahmed and including neurosurgery registrar Mr. Andrew Stevens, is actively seeking commercial partners to develop a prototype of the implantable device.

Their goal is to initiate clinical trials to further explore and potentially establish this innovative treatment as a standard care component for traumatic SCI.

This development represents a significant stride in spinal injury treatment, providing hope for improved outcomes and enhanced quality of life for those affected by such severe injuries.

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The research findings can be found in Bioengineering & Translational Medicine.

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