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Therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia


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Hypoxia is a condition in which body tissues are starved from oxygen. Your body will receive less oxygen, which is the fuel of cells. For protection, the cells will start to react and change their chemistry, triggering all sorts of changes. For example, hypoxia happens if you spend time at higher altitudes. Under these conditions, breathing air contains less oxygen. Technically, this situation can be mimicked via a respirator.

A brief summary
Main contributions to therapeutic hypoxia in spinal cord injury have been made by Florida based research labs from Randy Trumbower and Gordon Mitchell.
One of the most obvious effects that has been studied in the last decades is that it has the potential to improve breathing function. Scientists were surprised to find out that hypoxia also improves other motor functions, such as arm or leg movements. However, several problems must be solved before this potential treatment can be successfully integrated within clinical practice.

In 2016 and 2020, the Craig H. Neilsen and Wings for Life foundations co-sponsored a series of workshops on this potential treatment. The focus was to create a roadmap for clinical application to restore movement in people living with chronic, incomplete spinal cord injuries.

Open questions for future clinical trials
Although it might seem hard to understand, it is not so simple to bring such treatment to the clinic. First, you must prove that it’s not doing any harm to the people. Then you must prove that it’s bringing a real benefit. Furthermore, you need to ensure that it works in the best way possible, which can be even more tricky. In this case scientists have to find out the optimal duration and frequency of hypoxia phases and how to combine them with other rehabilitative interventions, for example specific training. Scientists must also prove that positive therapeutic effects remain long after the treatment has been done. Last but not least, they should understand which group of patients might benefit.

Several challenges remain before this promising treatment modality will be ready for full scale clinical trials.

This study was published in the journal Experimental Neurology and was supported by Wings for Life.

Source: Vose AK, Welch JF, Nair J, Dale EA, Fox EJ, Muir GD, Trumbower RD, Mitchell GS. Therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia: A translational roadmap for spinal cord injury and neuromuscular disease. Exp Neurol. 2021 Oct 9;347:113891. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2021.113891.

You can find out more on the spinal cord and the influence of its damage on the human body in our basic-information. Wings for Life Glossary gives an understanding of scientific terms.