The Perfect Storm
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Sean Gjos (right)
and friend Jim Young
SOME 40 YEARS AGO, the university established
the Brain Research Institute to serve, in the words of its director,
Allan J. Tobin, "as the central administrative and intellectual
unit for all neuroscience activities on campus." The 250 faculty
members who work in 22 departments encompassed by BRI, says Tobin,
"ferry ideas and advances from bench to bedside to business."
What is striking about these efforts, particularly in relation
to spinal-cord injury, is that they were launched at a time when
the scientific community was entrenched in certain doctrines of
belief that had attained the level of dogma. "The thinking,"
says V. Reggie Edgerton, professor of neurobiology, "was that
when an individual suffered a spinal-cord injury, you did nothing."
That thinking prevailed, Edgerton explains, because of the notion
that nerves, unlike most of the body's cells, tissues and organs,
have no regenerative capacity.
Twenty years ago, Edgerton began dodging this dogma with animal
experiments that indicated that regions in the spine contained memories
of patterned activities — walking, for example — which
could be reactivated through meticulous, specific and repetitive
rehabilitation, such as could be performed on a treadmill. The studies
in themselves didn't suggest an actual cure, but they did point
to a new horizon of modalities that had previously been unimagined.
The scope of spinal-cord-injury research and rehabilitation activities
extant at UCLA today would have been considered wild imaginings
a few short decades ago. These activities, according to Dobkin,
include research into stem-cell implantation, use of robotic assistive
steppers and body-weight-supported treadmills for rehabilitation,
and important investigations into the genetic signals that trigger
inflammation at the time of injury and how those signals might be
manipulated to regenerate nerve axons around the area of injury.