An international team, led by researchers at Imperial College London have shown that leading an active lifestyle may increase the likelihood of damaged nerves regenerating after a spinal cord injury. The study was carried out in a rodent model and found that providing rodents with more space, an exercise wheel, toys and company before an injury helped to ‘prime’ their cells, making it more likely their damaged nerves would regenerate following spinal injury. The team found that the addition of the exercise wheel and other environmental enrichment led to changes in gene expression which reprogrammed nerves making more likely to regenerate. The team identified a key molecule called CREB-Binding Protein (CBP) that may be effectively reprogramming the nerve cells, altering the expression of a number of genes in the cells and boosting their ability to regenerate. Based on this, the team used a recently developed drug that activates CBP to reprogramme damaged nerve cells, mimicking the regenerative effect of environmental enrichment.

Dorsal root ganglion neuron treated with the CBP-activator drug (Credit: Simone Di Giovanni and Thomas Hutson / Imperial College London).

The team says that while the work is still at an early stage the findings open a “realistic pathway” towards testing the links between pre-existing active lifestyle and recovery from spinal injury, and potentially to clinical trials of their drug treatment in human patients. Professor Simone Di Giovanni, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, whose team led the research, said: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that people with an active lifestyle may recover to a greater degree after spinal cord injury than those who are less active. Our studies support these findings. From what we have seen it’s almost as if the nerve cells are being ‘primed’ for regeneration and growth, which add to this enhanced recovery.The drug treatment that promoted regeneration and recovery in mice and rats after spinal cord injury offers an opportunity to be tested in patients”

The findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine was supported by funds from the Rosetrees Trust, Leverhume Trust, and Wings for Life.