Wichita State University’s Li Yao is taking a special approach to the study of spinal cord injuries through research that uses an electrical signal to repair tissue damage.
When a person suffers neurological damage to their spinal cord, the tissues surrounding the injury site can die. But one of the body’s defense mechanisms is the regeneration and migration of a type of support cell – called Schwann cells – to the injury.
Those cells, as has been discovered in recent years, help myelinate – or cover – nerve axons where the injury has occurred, which promotes the recovery of some of the spinal cord’s function.
Yao, a biological sciences assistant professor, is studying how electrical signals can aim those cells directly to the injury site. His research, he hopes, will open new doors for the medical field to use electrical fields in the treatment of neural injuries.
“Electrical signal is a kind of ignored approach that may generate significant biological function in neural regeneration,” Yao says.
Yao’s research studies the molecular mechanism of cell migration in electric fields using next-generation RNA sequencing to look at the signaling pathways that regulate cell migration.
So far, he has discovered that the precision of the cell migration toward the injury increased significantly as the strength of the electrical field increased. The electrical field did not, however, change the speed at which the cells moved.
Still, Yao’s early findings suggest that the use of electrical fields in cell migration could become a burgeoning area of study in regenerative medicine.
“Our work has implications for central nervous system repair, and the application of an electrical field may assist with that,” Yao says.