The Healing Possibilities of Electricity
Here is some cool stuff on the ways in which subtle levels of electrical current can be used to cause healing in the body
Spine doctors raise hope of electric cure
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday May 29, 2005
Scientists have found a startling way to heal serious wounds, including broken spinal cords: stimulating them with electric currents.
The technique has been used as the basis for an operation which, in newly completed clinical trials, produced dramatic improvements in patients paralysed by spinal injuries.
After inserting battery packs beside their broken spinal cords, many had feelings restored to their legs and arms after a few weeks' treatment. Feeling was also restored to their lower limbs.
'We have only just started working with this technique but it is going to have a major impact,' said Professor Colin McCaig, head of Aberdeen University's school of medical sciences. 'In a few years, everyone could have an electric device for speeding up wound-healing in their first aid box, a sort of electronic witch hazel'
The basic technology that underpins the battery packs, known as oscillating field stimulators, has been developed by McCaig who has grown human nerve cells in laboratory dishes. By placing them in a carefully controlled electrical field he found they could direct their growth in a particular direction.
'We have known for centuries that nerve and other cells respond to electrical stimulation,' McCaig told The Observer. 'However, in the 19th century, charlatans claimed they could do great things for patients by sitting them in the middle of electrical fields. It just made their hair stand on end. As a result, electrical fields fell into disrepute.'
By carefully introducing electrical fields around damaged tissues, McCaig and his team found they could improve the time taken for skin and cornea wounds to heal. The first experiments were carried out on cell cultures. McCaig then began working with Professor Richard Borgens, from the Centre for Paralysis Research at Purdue University in Indiana, on a device that could be implanted in humans. 'We realised that if we put the ends of the broken spinal cord together, we might be able to entice nerve cells to grow towards each other by using an electric current,' said Borgens.
There was a problem, however. Some nerve cells - the ones that carry signals from the brain - would need to grow down the spine, and some, which carry signals to the brain, would need to grow up the spine.
'You need a signal from your brain to tell your hand to move. Equally you need sensory signals from the body to the brain to tell you exactly where your hand is so you can move it to a new position,' said Borgens.
However, detailed research by McCaig then demonstrated that by oscillating the electrical field so that its direction switched every 30 minutes, nerve cells could be induced to move in both directions, up and down the spine.
Borgens's team then built a stimulator based on this principle and this was inserted in a small group of quadriplegic and paraplegic patients. The surgery was carried out by Professor Scott Shapiro of Indiana University.
'We were trying to see if there would be any unforeseen side effects. There weren't. However, we got a major surprise in the way patients responded. In one case, a patient who had lost all sensation in his body had it restored completely. Others - mainly the quadriplegics - noted significant improvements in their ability to move their limbs.'
A second, more detailed set of tests has now been launched. At present, only those with fresh injuries appear to respond to the technique. 'We have a long way to go: nevertheless, it is encouraging,' said Borgens.