ATP, the vital energy source that keeps our body’s cells alive, runs amok at the site of a spinal cord injury, pouring into the area around the wound and killing the cells that normally allow us to move, scientists report in the cover story of the August issue of Nature Medicine.
The finding that ATP is a culprit in causing the devastating damage of spinal cord injury is unexpected. Doctors have known that initial trauma to the spinal cord is exacerbated by a cascade of molecular events over the first few hours that permanently worsen the paralysis for patients. But the finding that high levels of ATP kill healthy cells in nearby regions of the spinal cord that were otherwise uninjured is surprising and marks one of the first times that high levels of ATP have been identified as a cause of injury in the body.
The team found that excess ATP damages motor neurons, the cells that allow us to move and whose deaths in the spinal cord result in paralysis. Even more noteworthy was what happened when the research team from the University of Rochester Medical Center blocked ATP’s effects on neurons: Rats with damaged spinal cords recovered most of their function, walking and running and climbing nearly as well as healthy rats.