News / 16 December 2019

Over 700,000 Australians have a brain or spinal cord injury. The majority of these Australians are under 40, with two out of every three brain injuries happening before the age of 25. Many of these patients will need lifelong care, making it a financial burden not only on the patient, but also the healthcare system. Beyond the monetary, brain and spinal cord injuries can have devastating effects on a patient’s ability to function, on a patient’s mental wellbeing and on a patient’s relationships.

Brain and spinal cord injuries can occur as a result of trauma such as a fall or an accident (car crashes or sporting injuries), medical conditions including stroke and spina bifida, or as a result of other back and spine conditions. These injuries are characterised by damage to the brain or spinal cord that results in a loss of or changes in mobility (physical function) or feeling, behaviour and thinking (cognitive function). A severe spinal cord injury can result in paraplegia or quadriplegia. Brain and spinal cord injuries affect different people in different ways, depending on the severity of the injury but often significantly alter quality of life and shorten the expected lifespan. At present, there are no effective treatments for brain or spinal cord injury or strategies to improve healing.

As the brain and spinal cord are parts of the body that are unable to regenerate, health professionals and inventors have developed ways to manage brain and spinal cord injuries, from mobility aids such as wheelchairs to exercise rehabilitation regimens. In fact, emerging technologies combining the power of engineering and biology are developing ways to connect the human brain with computers and robotic prosthetics, promising to improve the quality of life for patients.

In spite of these new and exciting technologies, one question remains unanswered- why are these parts of our bodies unable to regenerate and heal? After all, our skin is able to heal after cuts. Our liver is able to naturally regenerate- in fact, as little as 25% of a liver can regenerate into a whole liver. It has even been observed that children under ten are able to regrow fingertips under certain circumstances. Looking to nature, there are a number of animals that are able to regenerate vital body parts and organs such as brain, heart, kidney and entire limbs. How do humans largely lose the ability to regenerate some tissues and organs and not others? This is where our researchers come in.

The Kaslin group is using the zebrafish as a model to understand the secrets of regeneration. Why the zebrafish? Because it has an incredible ability to regenerate multiple organs and tissues including its brain and spinal cord following injury. Led by Dr Jan Kaslin, the Kaslin group has been able to study this healing using powerful imaging techniques to visualise the regeneration process. Here, ARMI researchers have been able to watch down the microscope and sort out how different cells contribute to healing the spine, both stem cells and other supporting cells such as immune cells, and how they migrate and work together to repair damage done to the brain or spinal cord. Now, using regeneration models and screening approaches, the Kaslin group is looking to further understand how this repairing process happens- which cells control this form of regeneration and how?

“It’s a dynamic process that occurs over several stages and involves a number of different cell types that all have specific jobs to do during the healing process. Our group is working to understand the specific roles of these cells and the signals that coordinate regeneration,” said Dr Kaslin.

While this work is in its early stages, understanding the neural regeneration process in zebrafish could have potential applications for humans in the future. With this information, particularly in identifying signals and cells that promote healing, it may be possible to develop new drugs or cell therapies that is able to encourage regeneration in the brain or spinal cord. Identifying such factors could mean that we may be able to amplify the signals that encourage inherent neural repair, block the ones that stop healing or control inflammation after injury. These factor and strategies may apply in other areas too, for example, neurodegenerative diseases where brain cells die. The work provides critical insight which may hold the key to unlocking strategies for future restorative therapies in the brain or spinal cord.

Dr Kaslin explained, “As biomedical scientists, our job is to tackle and solve important fundamental questions- questions that not only advance science and human knowledge, but questions that also have the potential to improve people health and wellbeing.” Without this vision and forward thinking, we would be unable to solve some of the body’s greatest mysteries. 

Support ARMI’s goal to understand more about neural regeneration.

More information

The Kaslin group is interested in cellular plasticity in the brain and spinal cord. In particular, the group studies how the neural system can repair itself and how researchers can improve this process. For more information on Dr Jan Kaslin and his group at ARMI, please visit the Kaslin Group page. You can contact Dr Jan Kaslin via jan.kaslin@monash.edu.