Fish May Change The Way We Look At Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are devastating, but fish may be the key to finding a cure.

Research shows adult fish that sustain a spinal cord injury have the miraculous ability to not only regenerate the spinal cord, these fish see a recovery of function as well – meaning they are able to perform tasks they were able to do prior to the injury.

For the past four years, Northeastern University Biology Department Chair Günther Zupanc and his Research Associate, Ruxandra Sîrbulescu, have been studying this stunning recovery in fish.

Their research was recently published in the journal Brain Research Reviews.

Zupanc’s team is examining how fish are able to regenerate the spinal cord in hopes of ultimately finding a way to replicate this process in humans. “To cure spinal cord injury would be amazing and incredible for people who are suffering,” Zupanc said.

According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, almost 1.3 million people live with spinal cord injuries in the U.S. The average cost for victims of spinal cord injury ranges from $230,000 to $780,000 in the first year alone. “In each case of spinal cord injury, it’s devastating to the individual, families and society,” said Zupanc. “The ultimate goal is to cure spinal cord injury.”

The first observation of a fish’s ability to recover from spinal cord injury was performed as early as 1920 on goldfish. However, the behavioral observations were not complemented with any examination of structural changes.

The research of Zupanc and Sîrbulescu dives deep into the structural basis of this amazing capability of fish, and observes the step-by-step regeneration process of the spinal cord.

According to Zupanc, after removal of part of the spinal cord, the injured fish sees a full recovery in as little as six to eight weeks.

“We are learning how fish have the potential to recovery after these injuries,” said Zupanc. “Humans share with fish part of this potential. However, this ability has become silent over evolutionary times. The trick will be to unravel the hidden potential of humans, and fish may show us how to do that.”

The discovery of spinal cord regeneration in fish is only the first step of a study that could ultimately lead the way to making life-altering spinal cord injuries a thing of the past.

College of Science