Neural Injury and Repair

Understanding the mechanisms and developing treatments to promote recovery and repair after central nervous system injury.

The Challenge

Injury to the brain or spinal cord has devastating consequences. There is limited recovery of function after central nervous system (CNS) injuries. In the United States, about 265,000 people live with a spinal cord injury (SCI), and some 12,000 new cases occur each year. In addition, each year about 1.7 million documented new cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) cause an estimated 52,000 deaths and an additional 275,000 cases requiring hospitalization.

The estimated annual cost (including medical cost and lost productivity) for SCI and TBI totals $20 billion and $76.5 billion respectively. Of greater importance is the human factor: SCI and TBI present significant lifelong quality-of-life challenges for patients. Currently there are no or very limited treatment options for CNS injuries. No treatment reverses the initial damage caused by the injury, and developing such a treatment represents a central goal for the field of CNS injury and repair.

The Innovation

We are on the cusp of major advances in unraveling the molecular underpinnings of CNS repair. In this respect, axonal regeneration and growth is of central importance. CNS axons are known to have very limited ability to regenerate after injury. Scientists are rapidly discovering the molecular determinants of axon regeneration after CNS injury. While the roles of neuron-extrinsic factors continue to be explored, recent studies highlight the importance of neuron-intrinsic mechanisms.

In addition to animal models of CNS injury, new technological advances such as in vivo imaging and studies with model organisms such as C. elegans are providing new insight to understanding axonal responses to injury. Knowledge of developmental neurobiology and stem cell biology are generating new hypotheses on axon regeneration. Just as important as regeneration, how a form of CNS' innate repair process -- axonal sprouting -- can be utilized and enhanced to promote CNS repair is also a critical area to explore not only for the treatment of SCI but also for TBI and related neurological conditions such as stroke.

Opportunities

The UCSD Neuroscience community offers strong expertise on axon regeneration, CNS injury and repair both in basic science and in the clinic arena. This interest group is organized at two levels. First, several laboratories work on animal models of axonal injury and repair ranging from C. elegans, mouse, rat, and mini-pig to non-human primate. Opportunities exist for combining expertise in different models, approaches and interventions to achieve the best possible outcome for CNS repair (especially SCI and severe TBI).

There is a journal club on Axon Regeneration and CNS Repair and an accompanying annual symposium on the same topic. Further fostering collaborations and synergies among different labs not only within this interest group but beyond (e.g., imaging, bioengineering) will spur innovative research, comprehensive training of young scientists and translating research findings to medical treatment.

The second component focuses on mild TBI, where there is significant clinical expertise. Drug treatment and cognitive rehabilitation are aimed at improving behavioral and cognitive outcomes in clinics at the VA (Center for Stress and Mental Health) and UCSD. Imaging is also being used extensively as a tool to better understand TBI.

We anticipate that this interest group will be continuously evolving so if you are interested in joining, please contact the interest group organizer Dr. Binhai Zheng.

brain graphic 

View a video with Neurosciences Professor Binhai Zheng on axonal regrowth after spinal cord injury.

Related Faculty

Andrew Chisholm
Yishi Jin
James Lohr
Martin Marsala
Yimin Zou

Spinal Cord Injury

Mark Tuszynski
Binhai Zheng