Many of us take for granted the ability to perform simple tasks until illness or injury takes away our capacity for things that were once routine. For example, hand function – the ability to grasp objects with the proper amount of pressure – is something that we all depend on every day.
The loss of this ability can have a devastating effect on a person’s independence and quality of life. According to a 2004 survey of tetraplegics all over the world, improvement of hand function was rated as one of the most important quality of life factors among those with spinal cord injuries. Some of those surveyed, in fact, regarded it as more important to quality of life than regaining sexual function or bladder and bowel control.
Discovery of Special Spinal Circuit
Incredible though it may seem, until researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada discovered it recently, doctors were unaware of the exact mechanism used by the body to control grasping ability. Like many other important discoveries, this one occurred by accident. A summary of the team’s findings, which were confirmed by experiments with collaborators, was recently published in the journal Neuron.
Scientists initially began investigating a group of neurons on the spinal cord because they believed it played a role in running and walking. Tests on mice soon proved, however, that this was not the case. Instead, they discovered that the group they were testing – known as dI3 interneurons – affected test subjects’ ability to grasp.
Accurate motor function requires accurate sensory feedback information. Without it, we would either drop objects because we were not holding them firmly enough or shatter them because we were applying far too much pressure. DI3 interneurons play a very important intermediary role: they relay sensory information from the hand back to the motor system. This feedback circuit is what allows us to control our hands.
Further Research May Result in the Development of Therapies
The discovery of the role of dI3 interneurons was extremely important, but scientists must still learn more about how the brain controls this specific circuit. Researchers are hopeful that, with further research, this discovery may lead to the development of therapies – whether pharmaceutical or surgical – that can help those with spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases regain hand function.
For those who have suffered a spinal cord injury, medical bills can be a significant burden. Contact an Austin personal injury attorney at The Stewart Law Firm, PLLC today to learn more about your legal options.