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UCLA Magazine Summer 2004
Of God and Blue-Footed Boobies
The Providential Scholar
Of the Community, By the Community, For the Community
Good Fellows
The Perfect Storm
The Next Step
Visual Road Trip
Coming Home
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Summer 2004
The Perfect Storm
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Sean Gjos and Friend Smiling
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.

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