Meet our researchers: Franziska Mueller, Imperial College London
Restoring function after spinal cord injury (PhD studentship)
Franziska Mueller was awarded a Brain Research UK PhD studentship in 2018 to enable her to pursue research in spinal cord injury.
After graduating from the University of Glasgow with a First Class Honours degree in Neuroscience, Franziska embarked upon a Masters degree with Professor Simone Di Giovanni at Imperial College London. Not only has this equipped her with crucial skills and experience but it continued to nurture her enthusiasm for this field of research.
This stands her in excellent stead for her PhD studies and the ambitious research project that she will be carrying out under the continued supervision of Professor Di Giovanni.
About spinal cord injury
The spinal cord is an extension of the brain; together they make up the central nervous system.
The spinal cord takes messages from the brain to other parts of the body, and from the body back to the brain. Damage to the spinal cord means that these messages can no longer get through - akin to someone drilling through your broadband cable. The ‘equipment’ either side of the injury may still be intact – the server and the router aren’t broken – but can no longer communicate.
The effect of a spinal cord injury depends on the site of the injury, and the severity of the damage. The messages get stopped from just below the site of the injury so the higher the injury, the greater the impact. Severe injuries can not only affect movement and sensation, but can potentially affect the messages that control bowel and bladder function, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
The consequences are shattering. The individual – and their family – must learn to adapt to a completely new way of life, with limited function and a drastic loss of independence.
Repairing the spinal cord
Current therapies for spinal cord injured patients are limited to neurorehabilitation. Different rehabilitative techniques aim to help the individual to rebuild their strength and regain limited physical ability, and help them develop strategies to attain a degree of independence. But there are no therapies that offer hope of repairing a spinal cord injury, to restore lost function.
Neurorehabilitation techniques take advantage of the ability of the brain and spinal cord to reorganise themselves by forming new neural connections, a process called ‘neuroplasticity’. Essentially, the nervous system tries to find new pathways when a typical route for messages is interrupted.
In the case of more severe injuries, there may simply be no alternative pathways. The old paths need to be re-established. And this is the focus of Franziska’s PhD project – her research aims to promote the regrowth of severed nerve fibres (axons) in the spinal cord.
Franziska is carrying out her PhD in the world-leading labs of Professor Simone Di Giovanni at Imperial College London, where she previously carried out a rotation placement during her Masters. This is an outstanding research environment with excellent facilities and world-leading expertise in the field of axonal regeneration and spinal cord injury.
Her PhD research will build on work previously conducted in this lab, which has found a way to way to switch on genes that stimulate (limited) regenerated growth of some severed axons.
Franziska will optimise the tools and techniques used to manipulate the expression of key genes to promote regeneration of axons and combine this with neurorehabilitation to guide the axons to meet up with their targets on the other side of the ‘gap’.
Franziska’s research will help to build the evidence needed to take this combined approach forward towards clinical trial for people affected by spinal cord injury, ultimately working towards the availability of effective treatments that can give people back the use of their body.
Equally important, through this PhD studentship, we are nurturing the development of a promising young researcher who we hope will go on to develop a long and illustrious career in this under-researched and under-resourced field.