Research offers cautious hope to spinal cord injury sufferers

Nerve cell discovery highlights promising research by UAlberta’s new and renewed Canada Research Chairs.


When University of Alberta spinal cord researcher Karim Fouad began his career, not a lot was known about injuries of the central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord.

“What researchers did know is that nerve cells don’t regrow,” said Fouad, who was named as a tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Injury as part of a $11.9-million federal government funding announcement Dec. 2. “I wanted to know why not.”

UAlberta's newest Canada Research Chairs

Tier 1 chairs ($1.4M over seven years)

  • Karim Fouad in spinal cord injury
  • Imre Szeman in cultural studies
  • Kevin Haggerty in surveillance ecologies
  • Christian Beaulieu in magnetic resonance imaging of brain micro-structure
  • Jason Dyck in molecular medicine
  • Simaan AbouRizk in operation simulation

Tier 2 chairs ($500,000 over five years)

  • Sean Bagshaw in critical care medicine
  • Kim TallBear in Indigenous peoples, technoscience and environment
  • Todd Alexander in renal epithelial transport physiology
  • Basil Hubbard in molecular therapeutics
  • Patrick Pilarski in machine intelligence for rehabilitation
  • Ken Butcher in cerebrovascular disease
  • Joel Dacks in evolutionary cell biology

Unravelling the mechanism that caused these cells to simply die off once injured would open all sorts of avenues to treatment. Fouad said it was a bit dispiriting when the factor behind the stifling of nerve cell regrowth turned out to be more than one. In fact, there were many.

“It was as if these factors seemed to be put there on purpose to not let the system grow as it once did,” he said. “People really got frustrated when they tried to promote regeneration, but more than one factor needed to be addressed.”

It wasn’t a complete dead end, but it was enough to send spinal cord researchers back to the drawing board. In search of a fresh perspective, Fouad embarked on some basic research looking to better understand how the nervous system controls motor behaviour, not knowing what he would find.

“Just by chance we found that the nervous system changes after injury, that there is a spontaneous recovery. It was fascinating,” he said. “We looked upstream from the injury site and suddenly we saw this growth and we said, ‘What are the neurons doing?’”

Fouad said he found that although axons—the part of a nerve cell that conducts the electrical current—don’t regenerate, they can build detours that send out little branches that are very close to other targets and effectively make new connections.

“This is what I like about basic research. You have these findings and you have your eyes wide open and you see this. This plasticity rewiring was an incidental finding,” said Fouad, adding the discovery led the creation of a new field of neuroplasticity.

“The most surprising things come by chance.”

With a naturally occurring repair mechanism, Fouad is now looking for a way to spur it along.

“It turns out rehabilitation training is one of the strongest ways that we have right now to initiate more of this naturally occurring repair mechanism,” he said.

Fouad’s research is still in its infancy, but advances in his lab applying electrical stimulation and using pharmaceuticals to promote these new pathways have given rise to cautious optimism that perhaps one day, lost motor and sensory function can be restored for those who have suffered from spinal cord injury.

In the short term, Fouad said he hopes his research demonstrates how powerful rehab training is.

“Rehabilitation is massive,” he said. “I want to show that there is a lot of bang for the buck with training and at the same time deliver pharmacological treatments that can boost this further.”

The U of A is now home to 51 tier 1 chairs and 33 tier 2 chairs worth $13.5 million annually.