Salamanders are a biological marvel: they are the only larger vertebrates that can regenerate entire limbs, a capacity for healing unmatched in the animal kingdom. Lizards can grow new tails, and human children can regrow the tips of their fingers, but only the salamander can cook up perfect shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands from scratch.
And it’s a perfect mystery how they do it. If we only understood how their cells do this wonderful thing, what else would we know about biology and healing? How would it change health care? Our ignorance and our potential are dizzying.
And yet progress has been made. In 2010, researchers were able to trigger impressive regrowth of joint surfaces in rabbits.1 We’ve also found a mammalian gene that suppresses regenerative function. When the gene is turned off, presto: animals that couldn’t regenerate suddenly can!2
Forget jetpacks: I want the future to bring us regeneration powers!
The salamander’s talent is an ideal example of and symbol for healing, and for what health care professionals do — for how much there is to learn, and for learning itself, the regeneration of our minds if not our limbs!
Most of the time it’s hard not to heal. You couldn’t stop it if you tried. The body is going to bounce back from most kinds of injuries, almost no matter what — it’s just a matter of time, with or without tricks like icing or soaking in an Epsom salts bath. It’s infamously impossible to rush healing.
Or is it?
It’s infamously impossible to rush healing. But stubborn pain problems, the subject of this website, are different by definition. Or healing itself fails, or pain persists even when the tissues seem to be fine (like common muscle aches), or a bit of both. Repetitive strain injuries, which usually afflict connective tissues like the it band, plantar fascia, or the wrapping around your shin bones, are slow-motion traumas that often seem immune to recovery — this is what makes them both terrible and fascinating. They usually don’t heal because they need more rest than most people will give them, but sometimes healing just doesn’t work. Sometimes bone fractures and lesions will not close (a problem every surgeon dreads). Sometimes pain persists because of a known glitch in biology!
The regenerative healing powers of the salamander are amazing and bizarre… but they are also darkly reflected in the human wounds that do not heal. It doesn’t seem fair: salamanders can regenerate entire limbs, but we often can’t recover from a little overuse!
Many tiny organisms are masters of regeneration. But it’s rare in animals larger than a speck, and particularly rare in mammals. If regeneration is possible in any mammal, then there’s hope for us.
And it is possible. This neat 2012 science story is promising: “Biologist discovers mammal with salamander-like regenerative abilities.”3 The African spiny mouse does a far better job at regenerating any part of itself than any other known mammal to date. Salamanders are much better at regeneration, in every way, but at least we know mammals aren’t completely left out of the regeneration game.
And there are many other examples of limited critter regeneration of specific body tissues and parts.
The PainScience.com salamander is more of a mascot than a logo. He’s a character. He has represented this website with a bit of flair since the very beginning (since before it was even called PainScience5).
The PainScience.com salamander does not believe everything he hears. The salamander is no sucker. The salamander watches MythBusters, and applies the same attitude here: let’s just check that. Sometimes the salamander squints at stupid ideas in health care and says, “Meh, not even even worth testing.”
When something seems too good to be true, the salamander rolls his beady little eyes, heaves a sigh, and gets ready to do brain battle with the forces of the evil Lord Gullible. The salamander is especially irritated by big promises. He is just not that impressed by a lot of expensive therapies and products, like acupuncture or Traumeel.
The salamander is living, breathing proof that there are miracles enough in biology without inventing new ones.
Sometimes you just need to hear sense from a salamander.
Fine, dash my hopes with all your crazy logic and science. Be that way.
What does electricity have to do with salamanders? Read all about it! The body electric: electromagnetism and the foundation of life, a book by Robert O Becker and Gary Selden. amazon.com A fascinating exploration of the most under-rated, neglected mysteries in biology. Some fractures just don’t heal — the broken ends of the bones refuse to grow back together. “Non-union” is a disaster for the patient, and a bitter disappointment for physicians. Fascinating and frustrated by this problem, Dr. Robert Becker ultimately devised a widely accepted technique for stimulating bone healing, using electrical stimulation. Along the way, he learned things about healing and biology that could have and should have — but haven’t yet — changed the course of medical science. Traditionally, scientists are skeptical of any idea that connects electromagnetism with biology, because it smacks of an old, disgraced biology idea called “vitalism.” Vitalism was once a major contender for explaining the nature of life, but it was abandoned as the biochemical perspective on biology advanced and proved itself to be so powerful. But Dr. Becker discovered that the role of electromagnetism in biology simply cannot be ignored, however out of fashion it may be. Starting his research career with questions about the almost miraculous healing abilities of salamanders, he devised one experiment after another that showed that life does interact with electromagnetic forces. We may not understand it well, and it may not be a subject of study in mainstream medical research, but it’s happening. Healing processes (such as bone union) can be dramatically altered by the application of current, for instance. But that is just the beginning. If even a fraction of the experimental results Becker describes reveal the true nature of organisms, it is clear that we have many really interesting things yet to learn about biology! The Body Electric chronicles the progress of Becker’s exploration, from salamander experiments all the way to the profound implications about how life works. Much like Candace Pert’s classic Molecules of Emotion, the book is both a personal story about doing research, as well as a story about the science itself. It is brilliantly composed for the layperson, but also rigorously scientific in spirit. Becker’s experiments are well-designed, and he steers clear of unjustified speculation. In the second half, he discuss the implications of his research, and I am aware that other readers have complained that he gets a bit eccentric. However, I continued to find him largely credible throughout, and I am not generally tolerant of sloppy logic. I think he responsibly acknowledges his biases, identifies speculation for what it is, and keeps his feet on scientific bedrock, reminding the reader many times that hypotheses must be tested, and results must be replicated. I find it hard to believe that a researcher so determined to remind people of this can be straying too far from sensibility! The result is a book that is a joy to read, credible and important, that stimulated my sense of wonder throughout, and left me feeling excited about the future of biology. It is also a “must read” for anyone who is interested in a potential scientific basis for Eastern philosophies that have always explained health and biology in terms of “energy” and other metaphors.
Are you skeptical too? See the PainScience Reading Guide for Skeptics.
Build it and the cells will come. This proof-of-concept study demonstrated what happens if you replace the end of a rabbit’s femur with an empty plastic “scaffolding” of exactly the same shape, and then fertilize it with transforming growth factor beta3. Cells migrate into the framework and start building bone and cartilage! “The entire articular surface of the synovial joint can regenerate without cell transplantation.” Without the growth factor, not much happened: much less than half as many cells moved into the new habitat.
These findings suggest that “regeneration of complex tissues is probable by homing of endogenous cells.”BACK TO TEXT