Researchers at Dalhousie University have discovered the spinal cord mechanism that controls our ability to use our hands.
The find will open the door to new treatments that will allow people to control their grip after spinal cord and neurodegenerative diseases.
The researchers, working with different groups of nerve cells in the spinal cord, said they found a group of neurons that receive information from our skin.
Tuan Bui, post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Robert Brownstone’s lab, explained that information is used to control grip strength.
“So let’s say you were holding an object in your hand and it starts slipping, well the information from the skin would be relayed to these cells and then it would adjust your grip-strength so you can catch the object and it won’t slip out of your hand,” he said.
Bui explained the new research will help target the cells that could make that possible for people who have lost the use of their hands.
“What we’ve done is basically identify a target for therapeutic intervention so if we want to restore hand-function, especially grip-strength, we can identify these cells as a target for therapeutic intervention,” he said.
Researchers are also trying to figure out how those cells are involved in other motor functions like walking.
“We think these cells, with the information they receive, are well placed to control different forms of movement,” explain Bui.
He said researchers still need to better understand how to regenerate nervous tissue.
“So if, following a spinal cord injury when there’s a lot of damage, if we can get the nervous tissue to regenerate then we can get, hopefully, new connections to be made so that whichever part repair itself can do so,” he said.
Like a lot of great discoveries, he admitted they were actually looking at something different.
“We found that the animals we were studying in which these cells had be silent, had a problem with adjusting their grip-strength,” he said.
Bui added it’s hard to say when this research could be used to help people.
“But it’s a critical step towards being able to help patients with spinal cord injury,” he said.
Bui noted there’s no doubt it will mean more, future research on the subject.