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.
James W. Grau
Karim Fouad, Abel Torres-Espín, and Keith K. Fenrich
Spinal cord injury results in a wide range of behavioral changes including impaired motor and sensory function, autonomic dysfunction, spasticity, and depression. Currently, restoring lost motor function is the most actively studied and sought-after goal of spinal cord injury research. This research is rooted in the fact that although self-repair following spinal cord injury in adult mammals is very limited, there can be some recovery of motor function. This recovery is strongly dependent on the lesion size and location as well as on neural activity of denervated networks activated mainly through physical activity (i.e., rehabilitative training). Recovery of motor function is largely due to neuroplasticity, which includes adaptive changes in spared and injured neural circuitry. Neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury is extensive and includes mechanisms such as moderate axonal sprouting, the formation of new synaptic connections, network remapping, and changes to neuron cell properties. Neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury has been described at various physiological and anatomical levels of the central nervous system including the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord, both above and below injury sites. The growing number of mechanisms underlying postinjury plasticity indicate the vast complexity of injury-induced plasticity. This poses important opportunities to further enhance and harness plasticity in order to promote recovery. However, the diversity of neuroplasticity also creates challenges for research, which is frequently based on mechanistically driven approaches. The appreciation of the complexity of neuronal plasticity and the findings that recovery is based on a multitude and interlinked adaptations will be essential in developing meaningful new treatment avenues.
Tamar Makin and London Plasticity Lab
Phantom sensations are experienced by almost every person who has lost their hand in adulthood. This mysterious phenomenon spans the full range of bodily sensations, including the sense of touch, temperature, movement, and even the sense of wetness. For a majority of upper-limb amputees, these sensations will also be at times unpleasant, painful, and for some even excruciating to the point of debilitating, causing a serious clinical problem, termed phantom limb pain (PLP). Considering the sensory organs (the receptors in the skin, muscle or tendon) are physically missing, in order to understand the origins of phantom sensations and pain the potential causes must be studied at the level of the nervous system, and the brain in particular. This raises the question of what happens to a fully developed part of the brain that becomes functionally redundant (e.g. the sensorimotor hand area after arm amputation). Relatedly, what happens to the brain representation of a body part that becomes overused (e.g. the intact hand, on which most amputees heavily rely for completing daily tasks)? Classical studies in animals show that the brain territory in primary somatosensory cortex (S1) that was “freed up” due to input loss (hereafter deprivation) becomes activated by other body part representations, those neighboring the deprived cortex. If neural resources in the deprived hand area get redistributed to facilitate the representation of other body parts following amputation, how does this process relate to persistent phantom sensation arising from the amputated hand? Subsequent work in humans, mostly with noninvasive neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques, have expanded on the initial observations of cortical remapping in two important ways. First, research with humans allows us to study the perceptual consequence of remapping, particularly with regards to phantom sensations and pain. Second, by considering the various compensatory strategies amputees adopt in order to account for their disability, including overuse of their intact hand and learning to use an artificial limb, use-dependent plasticity can also be studied in amputees, as well as its relationship to deprivation-triggered plasticity. Both of these topics are of great clinical value, as these could inform clinicians how to treat PLP, and how to facilitate rehabilitation and prosthesis usage in particular. Moreover, research in humans provides new insight into the role of remapping and persistent representation in facilitating (or hindering) the realization of emerging technologies for artificial limb devices, with special emphasis on the role of embodiment. Together, this research affords a more comprehensive outlook at the functional consequences of cortical remapping in amputees’ primary sensorimotor cortex.
Corinna Darian-Smith and Karen Fisher
Spinal cord injury (SCI) affects well over a million people in the United States alone, and its personal and societal costs are huge. This article provides a current overview of the organization of somatosensory and motor pathways, in the context of hand/paw function in nonhuman primate and rodent models of SCI. Despite decades of basic research and clinical trials, therapeutic options remain limited. This is largely due to the fact that (i) spinal cord structure and function is very complex and still poorly understood, (ii) there are many species differences which can make translation from the rodent to primate difficult, and (iii) we are still some way from determining the detailed multilevel pathway responses affecting recovery. There has also been little focus, until recently, on the sensory pathways involved in SCI and recovery, which are so critical to hand function and the recovery process. The potential for recovery in any individual depends on many factors, including the location and size of the injury, the extent of sparing of fiber tracts, and the post-injury inflammatory response. There is also a progression of change over the first weeks and months that must be taken into account when assessing recovery. There are currently no good biomarkers of recovery, and while axon terminal sprouting is frequently used in the experimental setting as an indicator of circuit remodeling and “recovery,” the correlation between sprouting and functional recovery deserves scrutiny.
Itzhak Fischer and Shaoping Hou
Spinal cord injury is characterized by a complex set of events, which include the disruption of connectivity between the brain and the periphery with little or no spontaneous regeneration, resulting in motor, sensory and autonomic deficits. Transplantation of neural stem cells has the potential to provide the cellular components for repair of spinal cord injury (SCI), including oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, and neurons. The ability to generate graft-derived neurons can be used to restore connectivity by formation of functional relays. The critical requirements for building a relay are to achieve long-term survival of graft-derived neurons and promote axon growth into and out of the transplant. Recent studies have demonstrated that mixed populations of glial and neuronal progenitors provide a permissive microenvironment for survival and differentiation of early-stage neurons, but inclusion of growth factors with the transplant or cues for directional axon growth outside the transplant may also be needed. Other important considerations include the timing of the transplantation and the selection of a population of neurons that maximizes the effective transmission of signals. In some experiments, the essential neuronal relay formation has been developed in both sensory and motor systems related to locomotion, respiration, and autonomic functions. Despite impressive advances, the poor regenerative capacity of adult CNS combined with the inhibitory environment of the injury remain a challenge for achieving functional connectivity via supraspinal tracts, but it is possible that recruitment of local propriospinal neurons may facilitate the formation of relays. Furthermore, it is clear that the new connections will not be identical to the original innervation, and therefore there needs to be a mechanism for translating the resulting connectivity into useful function. A promising strategy is to mimic the process of neural development by exploiting the remarkable plasticity associated with activity and exercise to prune and strengthen synaptic connections. In the meantime, the sources of neural cells for transplantation are rapidly expanding beyond the use of fetal CNS tissue and now include pluripotent ES and iPS cells as well as cells obtained by direct reprogramming. These new options can provide considerable advantages with respect to preparation of cell stocks and the use of autologous grafting, but they present challenges of complex differentiation protocols and risks of tumor formation. It is important to note that although neural stem cell transplantation into the injured spinal cord is primarily designed to provide preclinical data for the potential treatment of patients with SCI, it can also be used to develop analogous protocols for repair of neuronal circuits in other regions of the CNS damaged by injury or neurodegeneration. The advantages of the spinal cord system include well-defined structures and a large array of quantitative functional tests. Therefore, studying the formation of a functional relay will address the fundamental aspects of neuronal cell replacement without the additional complexities associated with brain circuits.