I Smell Something Amazing! – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

I do smell something amazing … success! A man paralyzed from the chest down from a knife attack in 2010, can now walk! Doctors transplanted nerve cells from his nose into his severed spinal cord resulting in a first of its kind regenerative medicine. Darek Fidyka is walking again after having a completely severed spinal cord! Awesome! How did they do that?

I often get asked if neurons are regenerated. And my answer is that we are all born with billions of neurons and as we age, and for the most part, those are all the neurons we will ever have. But there are two places that undergo neurogenesis (birth of neurons) throughout life: Our hippocampus and the area of the brain called the olfactory bulb. I have always had a way to explain how to use new neurons in the hippocampus to our advantage. The hippocampus is often referred to as the memory center in our brains and it undergoes neurogenesis when we exercise. So, regular exercise is important for your brain, not just your body.

However, until last week, I did not have a great way to talk about the olfactory bulb neurogenesis except to explain why that location needs regenerated . After all, without those nerve bundles behind our eyes, known as the olfactory bulbs, we would not be able to smell anything! The nerve cells in our noses are shed daily. It is part of life. We need to replace them as frequently as we shed them in order to smell grandmas’ pumpkin pie, the roast in the oven … or that sweet smell of success.

What is amazing and exciting about this latest medical development is the use of Fidyka’s own olfactory nerve cells to heal his spinal cord. It was not as simple as blowing his nose, though! It took years. And it will take years more before the procedure is widespread, since the procedure need to repeated and undergo medical trials. Professor Geoffrey Raisman at the University of College London, who performed the technique, is hopeful that this procedure will be a historic change for spinal cord injuries.

Next time you stop to smell the roses, don’t forget the potential power in that nose. The world is changing, and now we know those regenerating neurons in our noses are useful for so much more.

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