Understanding of the various types of plasticity that occur in the spinal cord, as well as understanding of spinal cord functions, has vastly improved over the past 50 years, mainly due to an increase in the number of research studies and review articles on the subject. It is now understood that the spinal cord is not merely a passive conduit of neural impulses. Instead, the spinal cord can independently execute complex functions. Numerous experimental approaches have been utilized for more targeted exploration of spinal cord functions. For example, isolating the spinal cord from supraspinal influences has been used to demonstrate that simple forms of learning can be performed by spinal neuronal networks. Moreover, reduced preparations, such as acute spinal cord slices, have been used to show that spinal neurons undergo different types of modulation, including activity-dependent synaptic modification. Most spinal cord processes, ranging from integration of incoming sensory input to execution of locomotor outputs, involve plasticity. Nociceptive processing that leads to pain and spinal learning is an example of plasticity that is well-studied in the spinal cord. At the neural level, both processes involve an interplay of cellular mediators, which include glutamate receptors, protein kinases, and growth factors. The neurotrophin brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has also been implicated in these processes, specifically as a promoter of both pro-nociception and spinal learning mechanisms. Interestingly, the role of BDNF in mediating spinal plasticity can be altered by injury. The literature spanning approximately 5 decades is reviewed and the role of BDNF is discussed in mediating cellular plasticity underlying pain processing and learning within the spinal cord.
Sandra M. Garraway
Kalynn Schulz, Marcia Chavez, and Arthur Castaneda
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) are present throughout the central nervous system and involved in a variety of physiological and behavioral functions. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are receptive to the presence of nicotine and acetylcholine and can be modulated through a variety of agonist and antagonist actions. These receptors are complex in their structure and function, and they are composed of multiple α and β subunits. Many affective disorders have etiological links with developmental exposure to the nAChR agonist nicotine. Given that abnormalities in nAChRs are associated with affective disorders such as depression and anxiety, pharmacological interventions targeting nAChRs may have significant therapeutic benefits.
Edgar T. Walters
Chronic pain lasting months or longer is very common, poorly treated, and sometimes devastating. Nociceptors are sensory neurons that usually are silent unless activated by tissue damage or inflammation. In humans their peripheral activation evokes conscious pain, and their spontaneous activity is highly correlated with spontaneous pain. Persistently hyperactive nociceptors mediate increased responses to normally painful stimuli (hyperalgesia) in chronic conditions and promote the sensitization of central pain pathways that allows low-threshold mechanoreceptors to elicit painful responses to innocuous stimuli (allodynia). Investigations of rodent models of neuropathic pain and hyperalgesic priming have revealed many alterations in nociceptors and associated cells that are implicated in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. These include chronic nociceptor hyperexcitability and spontaneous activity, sprouting, synaptic plasticity, changes in intracellular signaling, and modified responses to opioids, along with alterations in the expression and translation of thousands of genes in nociceptors and closely linked cells.
William H. Walker II and A. Courtney DeVries
Neuroimmunology is the study of the interaction between the immune system and nervous system during development, homeostasis, and disease states. Descriptions of neuroinflammatory diseases dates back centuries. However, in depth scientific investigation in the field began in the late 19th century and continues into the 21st century. Contrary to prior dogma in the field of neuroimmunology, there is immense reciprocal crosstalk between the brain and the immune system throughout development, homeostasis, and disease states. Proper neuroimmune functioning is necessary for optimal health, as the neuroimmune system regulates vital processes including neuronal signaling, synapse pruning, and clearance of debris and pathogens within the central nervous system. Perturbations in optimal neuroimmune functioning can have detrimental consequences for the host and underlie a myriad of physical, cognitive, and behavioral abnormalities. As such, the field of neuroimmunology is still relatively young and dynamic and represents an area of active research and discovery.
Olivia H. Bodart, Ethan P. Glaser, Steven M. MacLean, Meifan A. Chen, and John C. Gensel
Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a life-altering event for which there is no treatment. Depending on injury location and severity, the breadth of the effects can go far past simple mobility. Primary mechanical trauma triggers a variety of secondary cellular events that exacerbate tissue loss as well as facilitate endogenous repair. A large focus of SCI research is on understanding the pathophysiological mechanisms through which these secondary responses contribute to morbidities associated with SCI. Neuroinflammation, a common response to central nervous system (CNS) insult, is central to the secondary injury cascade. In the context of SCI, the inflammatory response plays a contradictory role in recovery; immune cells release both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines at the injury site and clear debris while also causing damage to spared tissue. The major innate and adaptive immune cells that respond to SCI are neutrophils, astrocytes, microglia/macrophages, B cells, and T cells. For each cell type, the timing of the cellular response (in both human and rodent models of SCI), the potential role each cell type plays in the pathophysiology of injury, and the therapeutic implications of targeting each cell type for SCI recovery are discussed.
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.
Richard L. Doty
Decreased ability to smell is common in older persons. Some demonstrable smell loss is present in more than 50% of those 65 to 80 years of age, with up to 10% having no smell at all (anosmia). Over the age of 80, 75% exhibit some loss with up to 20% being totally anosmic. The causes of these decrements appear multifactorial and likely include altered intranasal airflow patterns, cumulative damage to the olfactory receptor cells from viruses and other environmental insults, decrements in mucosal metabolizing enzymes, closure of the cribriform plate foramina through which olfactory receptor cells axons project to the brain, loss of selectivity of receptor cells to odorants, and altered neurotransmission, including that exacerbated in some age-related neurodegenerative diseases.
James W. Grau
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.
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.
Dayna L. Averitt, Rebecca S. Hornung, and Anne Z. Murphy
The modulatory influence of sex hormones on acute pain, chronic pain disorders, and pain management has been reported for over seven decades. The effect of hormones on pain is clearly evidenced by the multitude of chronic pain disorders that are more common in women, such as headache and migraine, temporomandibular joint disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. Several of these pain disorders also fluctuate in pain intensity over the menstrual cycle, including headache and migraine and temporomandibular joint disorder. The sex steroid hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) as well as some peptide hormones (prolactin, oxytocin, and vasopressin) have been linked to pain by both clinical and preclinical research. Progesterone and testosterone are widely accepted as having protective effects against pain, while the literature on estrogen reports both exacerbation and attenuation of pain. Prolactin is reported to trigger pain, while oxytocin and vasopressin have analgesic properties in both sexes. Only in the last two decades have neuroscientists begun to unravel the complex anatomical and molecular mechanisms underlying the direct effects of sex hormones and mechanisms have been reported in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Mechanisms include directly or indirectly targeting receptors and ion channels on sensory neurons, activating pain excitatory or pain inhibitory centers in the brain, and reducing inflammatory mediators. Despite recent progress, there remains significant controversy and challenges in the field and the seemingly pleiotropic role estrogen plays on pain remains ambiguous. Current knowledge of the effects of sex hormones on pain has led to the burgeoning of gender-based medicine, and gaining further insight will lead to much needed improvement in pain management in women.