After injury to the spinal cord, glial cells and neural stem cells in the spinal cord contribute to the formation of the “glial scar.” This glial scar is rich in molecules known as chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) that are known to repel growing axons. Therefore, the glial scar is viewed as a major impediment to spinal cord regeneration.
However, new work from the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden has confirmed that the glial scar actually works to contain the damage within the spinal cord. Far from impairing spinal cord recovery, the stem cell-mediated formation of the glial scar confines the damage to a discrete portion of the spinal cord and prevents it from spreading.
Trauma to the spinal cord can sever those nerve fibers that conduct nerve impulses to from the brain to skeletal muscles below the level of spinal cord injury. Depending on where the spinal cord is injured and the severity of the injury, spinal cord injuries can lead to a various degrees of paralysis. Such paralysis is often permanent, since the severed nerves do not grow back.
The absence of neural regeneration required an explanation, since cultured neurons whose axons are severed can regenerate both in culture and in a living creatures (for an excellent review, see Nishio T. Axonal regeneration and neural network reconstruction in mammalian CNS. J Neurol. 2009 Aug;256 Suppl 3:306-9). Thus, neuroscientists have concluded that the injured spinal contains a variety of molecules that inhibit axonal outgrowth and regeneration.
This hypothesis has been demonstrated since many axon growth inhibitors have been isolated from the injured spinal cord (see Schwab ME (2002) Repairing the injured spinal cord. Science 295:1029–1031). Such molecules include proteins like Nogo, Myelin-Associated Glycoprotein (MAG), and Oligodendrocyte-Myelin Glycoprotein (OMgp). However, as the Nishio review points out, axons from severed nerved have been seen growing throughout the central nervous system. Therefore, most of the blame for a lack of regrowth has been pinned on the glial scar.
A new study by Jonas Frisén of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology and his colleagues has shown that the neural stem cell population in the spinal cord are the main contributors to the glial scar. However, when glial scar formation was prevented after spinal cord injury, the injured area in the spinal cord expanded and more nerve fibers were severed. Furthermore, in their mouse model, a great number of nerve cells died in those mice that did not make glial scars when compared to those mice that were able to produce a normal glial scar.
“It turned out that scarring from stem cells was necessary for stabilizing the injury and preventing it from spreading,” said Frisén. “Scar tissue also facilitated the survival of damaged nerve cells. Our results suggest that more rather than less stem cell scarring could limit the consequences of a spinal cord injury.”
According to earlier animal studies, recovery can be improved by transplanting stem cells to the injured spinal cord. These new findings suggest that stimulating the spinal cord’s own stem cells could offer an alternative to cell transplantation therapies.
This paper appeared in the journal Science, 1 November 2013: 637-640, and the first author was Hanna Sabelström. This interesting paper might be leaving one thing out when it comes to spinal cord regeneration. Once the acute phase of spinal cord injury is completed and the chronic phase begins, the glial scar does in fact prevent spinal cord regeneration. This is the main reason Chinese researchers have used chondroitinase enzymes to digest the scar in combination with transplantations on stem cells. By weakening the repulsive effects of the glial scar, these stem cells can form axons that grow through the scar. Also, olfactory ensheathing cells or OECs seem to be able to shepherd axons through the scar, although the degree of regeneration with these cells has been modest, but definitely real. Therefore, negotiating axonal regeneration through the glial scar remains a major challenge of spinal cord injury. Thus, while the glial scar definitely has short-term benefits, for the purposes or long-term regeneration, it is a barrier all the same.