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A new player in spinal cord injuries?

Cells in the blood vessel wall that can contribute to a scar after spinal cord injury (in green). Image showing a blood vessel in the uninjured spinal cord.
[Picture by Christian Göritz]

Scars are made of connective tissue that replaces normal skin after a wound—and even though most people don't like the way they look, they play a valuable role in the healing process.

Researchers have previously found that peoples' scars are full of astrocytes, or star-shaped cells that are found in the brain and spinal cord. And for that reason, researchers have assumed that astrocytes play a significant role in forming scars after damage to the central nervous system.

However, new research shows that a different kind of cell—the pericyte—is actually the main contributor to scars forming in response to spinal cord injury. Apparently, these connective tissue cells, which are normally known for their role in wrapping small blood vessels, produce specific stromal cells that make up the bulk of scars forming on the spinal cord.

Christian Göritz and colleagues performed studies on mice in order to make this discovery. They labeled certain pericytes in the mice and then watched as those specialized cells migrated to the spinal cord after it was injured. They watched those pericytes closely for seven months after the injuries.

After nine days, Göritz and his team found that the stromal cells created by the pericytes had increased more than 25 times in number—and two weeks after the injury, there were twice as many of those stromal cells than there were astrocytes.

In light of their findings, the researchers suggest that pericytes play a serious role in scar formation after injuries to the spinal cord.

This research appears in the 08 July 2011 issue of Science.