Smell Proves Key To Paralyzed Man Walking


A paralysed man is able to walk again thanks to his nasal cavity. Surgeons used cells from Darek Fidyaka to bridge the gap in his spinal cord and promote regrowth.

Fidyka was left unable to walk after being repeatedly stabbed in the back in a 2010 attack that paralyzed him below the chest.

The surgery, carried out by Polish surgeons with the assistance of British scientists, took advantage of the unique nature of the nose. When nerves cells (marked “6” above) in the nose come into contact with molecules carrying odors, they pass the messages on to the olfactory bulb (marked “1”), which is a part of the brain immediately next to the top of the nasal cavities.

Unlike any other part of the nervous system, olfactory nerve cells can be continually replaced by the body after damage. That may have developed because the cells are exposed to the risk of damage, such as from injuries to the nose or toxic fumes. The regenerative ability is why permanent loss of smell is rare, even after major damage to the nose.

Two years ago surgeons removed one of Fidyka’s two olfactory bulbs and used it to grow ensheathing cells, which are what allow the olfactory nerve cells to regrow. They then made around 100 injections of the ensheathing cells above and below the 8mm gap in his spinal cord which had led to the paralysis. Finally they put four strips of nerve tissue across the gap.

It appears that, as hoped, the ensheathing cells encouraged the spinal cord cells to regenerate. They then effectively used the nerve tissue strips as a bridge until the spinal cord cells from both sides of the gap connected with one another and restored the connection across the full length of the spinal cord.

After extensive exercise and rehabilitation, Fidyka can now walk, albeit using a frame. He’s also recovered some sensation in the bladder and bowel.

[Image credit: Patrick J. Lynch via Creative Commons license]

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