Long-term treatment with gabapentin, a commonly prescribed drug for nerve pain, could help to restore upper limb function after a spinal cord injury, new research in mice suggests.

Mice treated with gabapentin regained roughly 60 per cent of forelimb function in a skilled walking test, compared to restoration of approximately 30 per cent of forelimb function in mice that received a placebo.

The drug blocks activity of a protein that has a key role in the growth process of axons, the long, slender extensions of nerve cell bodies that transmit messages.

The protein stops axon growth at times when synapses form, allowing transmission of information to another nerve cell.

The research showed that gabapentin blocks the protein from putting on its brakes, which effectively allowed axons to grow longer after injury.

“There is some spontaneous recovery in untreated mice, but it’s never complete. The treated mice still have deficits, but they are significantly better,” said senior author Andrea

Tedeschi, assistant professor of neuroscience at The Ohio State University.

“This research has translational implications because the drug is clinically approved and already prescribed to patients,” he said.

“I think there’s enough evidence here to reconsider how we use this drug in the clinic. The implication of our finding may also impact other neurological conditions such as brain injury and stroke.”

The regained function in mice occurred after four months of treatment – the equivalent of about nine years in adult humans.
“We really have to consider that rebuilding neuronal circuits, especially in an adult central nervous system, takes time. But it can happen,” said Wenjing Sun, research assistant professor of neuroscience at Ohio State and first author of the publication.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.