Strengthening neural connections by limiting oxygen intake

What makes the debilitating effects of an injury to the spinal cord especially daunting is their likely permanence. Dr. Milap Sandhu is developing interventions that have shown promising results in inducing spinal plasticity. One such therapy involves repetitive exposures to modest bouts of low oxygen, also called acute intermittent hypoxia, which increases serotonin levels and helps to strengthen neural connections in the spared pathways. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research…

My research is focused on identification and validation of novel interventions that induce plasticity within the central nervous system and enhance functional recovery in persons with neurological disorders such as spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis. In particular, I am interested in a therapy called acute intermittent hypoxia, which constitutes repetitive exposure to modest bouts of low oxygen.

My research is focused on identification and validation of novel interventions that induce plasticity within the central nervous system and enhance functional recovery in persons with neurological disorders

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

Spinal cord injury disrupts connections between the brain and spinal cord, causing lifelong deficits in mobility and functional independence. My research focuses on developing strategies that can strengthen spared synaptic connections and induce spinal plasticity (long lasting changes) that can improve functional recovery. One promising strategy to induce spinal plasticity is via repetitive exposures to modest bouts of low oxygen, also called acute intermittent hypoxia.

One promising strategy to induce spinal plasticity is via repetitive exposures to modest bouts of low oxygen, also called acute intermittent hypoxia.

This triggers the release of specific proteins throughout the spinal cord that promote effective increased neural plasticity, improving muscle contractions. This intervention was initially investigated in animal models of spinal cord injury and is currently being translated in humans.

How could it someday impact patient lives?

This research has the potential to shift the focus of spinal cord injury research to new avenues and therapies that can enhance traditional therapy efficacy. Eventually, it is conceivable that this approach could be implemented in full-scale clinical programs as an adjunct to rehabilitation.

In addition to his role at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Dr. Sandhu is also an Assistant Professor at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.