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date: 27 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

The traditional view of central nervous system function presumed that learning is the province of the brain. From this perspective, the spinal cord functions primarily as a conduit for incoming/outgoing neural impulses, capable of organizing simple reflexes but incapable of learning. Research has challenged this view, demonstrating that neurons within the spinal cord, isolated from the brain by means of a spinal cut (transection), can encode environmental relations and that this experience can have a lasting effect on function. The exploration of this issue has been informed by work in the learning literature that establishes the behavioral criteria and work within the pain literature that has shed light on the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Studies have shown that spinal systems can exhibit single stimulus learning (habituation and sensitization) and are sensitive to both stimulus–stimulus (Pavlovian) and response–outcome (instrumental) relations. Regular environmental relations can both bring about an alteration in the performance of a spinally mediated response and impact the capacity to learn in future situations. The latter represents a form of behavioral metaplasticity. At the neurobiological level, neurons within the central gray matter of the spinal cord induce lasting alterations by engaging the NMDA receptor and signal pathways implicated in brain-dependent learning and memory. Of particular clinical importance, uncontrollable/unpredictable pain (nociceptive) input can induce a form of neural over-excitation within the dorsal horn (central sensitization) that impairs adaptive learning. Pain input after a contusion injury can increase tissue loss and undermines long-term recovery.

Keywords: central sensitization, Pavlovian conditioning, instrumental conditioning, NMDA receptor, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), spinal cord injury, pain, metaplasticity, hemorrhage

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