Spinal cord injuries are dev­as­tating, but fish may be the key to finding a cure.

Research shows adult fish that sus­tain a spinal cord injury have the mirac­u­lous ability to not only regen­erate the spinal cord, but to recover func­tion as well — meaning they are able to per­form tasks they were able to do prior to the injury.

For the past four years, biology depart­ment chair Gün­ther Zupanc and his research asso­ciate, Ruxandra Sîr­bulescu, have been studying this stun­ning recovery in fish.

Their research was recently pub­lished in the journal Brain Research Reviews.

Zupanc’s team is exam­ining how fish are able to regen­erate the spinal cord in hopes of ulti­mately finding a way to repli­cate this process in humans. “To cure spinal cord injury would be amazing and incred­ible for people who are suf­fering,” Zupanc said.

Fish use a “clean” type of cell death, called apop­tosis, to remove cells dam­aged by injury, said Zupanc. This is in con­trast to mam­malian species, in which mas­sive necrotic cell death occurs after injury. This necrotic response leads to an inflam­ma­tion of tissue, and thus, to a sec­ondary mas­sive wave of cell death.

According to the Christo­pher & Dana Reeve Foun­da­tion, nearly 1.3 mil­lion people live with spinal cord injuries in the United States. The average cost for vic­tims of spinal cord injury ranges from $230,000 to $780,000 in the first year alone. “Spinal cord injury is dev­as­tating to the indi­vidual, fam­i­lies and society,” said Zupanc. “The ulti­mate goal is to cure spinal cord injury.”

The first obser­va­tion of a fish’s ability to recover from spinal cord injury was per­formed as early as 1920 on gold­fish. How­ever, the behav­ioral obser­va­tions were not com­ple­mented with any exam­i­na­tion of struc­tural changes.

The research of Zupanc and Sîr­bulescu dives deep into the struc­tural basis of this amazing capa­bility of fish, and observes the step-​​by-​​step regen­er­a­tion process of the spinal cord.

According to Zupanc, after removal of part of the spinal cord, the injured fish sees a full recovery in as little as six to eight weeks.

My lab­o­ra­tory has pio­neered the large-​​scale iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of pro­teins involved in the indi­vidual regen­er­a­tive processes,” Zupanc said. “Our research has led to a fair under­standing of regen­er­a­tion in organ­isms that are capable of healing wounds in the brain or spinal cord. This knowl­edge has led to a better under­standing of the fac­tors that limit regen­er­a­tion in mam­mals, including humans.

Humans have some regen­er­a­tion poten­tial. The trick will be to unravel the hidden poten­tial of humans, and fish may show us how to do that.”