Common Antidepressant May Help Partial Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

Reuters reports that the common antidepressant Lexapro (escitalopram) may speed up recovery for people with partial spinal cord injuries. When combined with an intensive treadmill workout program, the antidepressant helped participants in one study to walk better and faster.

Lexapro affects the neurotransmitter serotonin, and researchers from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago say that serotonin helps to strengthen remaining nerve connections along the spine. This gives patients with partial spinal cord injuries more muscle control during their rehabilitation exercises.

“The drug is enhancing the effects of therapy,” said researcher George Hornby. “The durg on its own isn’t a miracle drug. What you need is the drug plus the training.”

Previous studies found that serotonin-enhancing drugs can help animals recover after spinal cord injuries. This was this first test that showed positive results for humans. The researchers followed 50 participants with partial spinal cord injury. The patients underwent an two-month treadmill program in which they were assisted by a physical therapist or robot. Up to 40 percent of their body weight was supported by a harness. Participants were given either Lexapro or a placebo before training. Both groups showed improvement, but the participants who received Lexapro were able to walk much faster.

Researchers say the antidepressant appears to work by increasing muscle spasms and nerve reflexes which can then be trained. While some doctors consider muscle spasms to be a negative side effect of spinal cord injuries, Hornby points out that patients with spinal cord injury must “rely on those reflexes to walk.”

He thinks that the Lexapro strengthened the residual connections between the spinal cord and the brain.

“It helps you drive that muscle harder, and it’s easier for the brain to activate the muscle,” Hornby said.

The participants in the study received the antidepressant only on the day of training, but the benefit of the drug persisted even when it was out of their system.

Researchers plan to do more studies using other antidepressants. Other antidepressants that affect serotonin (such as Paxil and Prozac) may work even better than Lexapro. Researchers also plan to include electrical muscle stimulation in studies to see if that speeds up recovery further.

The recent study from Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago was presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago over the weekend.

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