Campus & Community

Breathing easier after spinal cord injuries

2 min read

Common tranquilizer may save lives

njuries to the upper spinal cord can take a victim’s breath away.
Most people don’t know that breathing difficulties are the leading cause of disease and death after such injuries. Indeed, respiratory failure causes more deaths than limb paralysis does, and survivors often become dependent on ventilation machines.

For the first time, Harvard researchers successfully tested an inexpensive, readily available class of drugs that has restored normalcy to rats who suffered the same loss of breath as humans who receive spinal cord injuries in combat, falls, car wrecks, or by gun or knife. These drugs include buspirone, a tranquilizer used to ease anxiety in the elderly and to help people quit smoking.

“This is the first experiment to demonstrate the complete recovery of respiratory function in conscious rats with injuries in the cervical [upper] region of the spinal cord,” says Yang “Ted” Teng, assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and director of spinal cord injury research at the Veterans Administration Boston Healthcare System. “In light of their availability, we believe drugs such as buspirone offer a novel strategy for treating post-spinal-cord-injury respiratory dysfunction. Also, our work will allow further investigation of other promising drug therapies for this highly morbid and sometimes fatal complication.”

Teng also believes that further exploration of the restorative action of drugs, along with use of neural stem cells, could lead to new treatment for breathing complications that arise from other disorders like stroke and Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).