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Article

Kristina A. Kigerl and Phillip G. Popovich

Spinal cord injury (SCI) disrupts the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and impairs communication with organ systems throughout the body, resulting in chronic multi-organ pathology and dysfunction. This dysautonomia contributes to the pronounced immunosuppression and gastrointestinal dysfunction seen after SCI. All of these factors likely contribute to the development of gut dysbiosis after SCI—an imbalance in the composition of the gut microbiota that can impact the development and progression of numerous pathological conditions, including SCI. The gut microbiota are the community of microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that live in the GI tract and are critical for nutrient absorption, digestion, and immune system development. These microbes also communicate with the CNS through modulation of the immune system, production of neuroactive metabolites and neurotransmitters, and activation of the vagus nerve. After SCI, gut dysbiosis develops and persists for more than one year from the time of injury. In experimental models of SCI, gut dysbiosis is correlated with changes in inflammation and functional recovery. Moreover, probiotic treatment can improve locomotor recovery and immune function in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Since different types of bacteria produce different metabolites with unique physiological and pathological effects throughout the body, it may be possible to predict the prevalence or severity of post-injury immune dysfunction and other related comorbidities (e.g., metabolic disease, fatigue, anxiety) using microbiome sequencing data. As research identifies microbial-derived small molecules and the genes responsible for their production, it is likely that it will become feasible to manipulate these molecules to affect human biology and disease.

Article

Human spinal cord injury (SCI) results in long-lasting disabilities due to the failure of damaged neurons to regenerate. The barriers to axon regeneration in mammalian central nervous system (CNS) are so great, and the anatomy so complex that incremental changes in regeneration brought about by pharmacological or molecular manipulations can be difficult to demonstrate. By contrast, lampreys recover functionally after a complete spinal cord transection (TX), based on regeneration of severed axons, even though lampreys share the basic organization of the mammalian CNS, including many of the same molecular barriers to regeneration. And because the regeneration is incomplete, it can be studied by manipulations designed to either inhibit or enhance it. In the face of reduced descending input, recovery of swimming and other locomotor functions must be accompanied by compensatory remodeling throughout the CNS, as would be required for functional recovery in mammals. For such studies, lampreys have significant advantages. They have several large, identified reticulospinal (RS) neurons, whose regenerative abilities have been individually quantified. Other large neurons and axons are visible in the spinal cord and can be impaled with microelectrodes under direct microscopic vision. The central pattern generator for locomotion is exceptionally well-defined, and is subject to significant neuromodulation. Finally, the lamprey genome has been sequenced, so that molecular homologs of human genes can be identified and cloned. Because of these advantages, the lamprey spinal cord has been a fertile source of information about the biology of axon regeneration in the vertebrate CNS, and has the potential to serve as a test bed for the investigation of novel therapeutic approaches to SCI and other CNS injuries.

Article

Kaitlin Farrell, Megan R. Detloff, and John D. Houle

Spinal cord injury has instantaneous, destructive effects on bodily functions, as readily demonstrated by muscle paralysis and non-responsiveness to sensory stimulation. This primary response has underlying features at molecular, cellular, tissue and organ levels which will, in a relatively brief time, initiate a secondary cascade of events that exacerbates the extent of the primary focus of damage. Interestingly, the initial extent of motor and sensory loss often is followed by limited, but significant spontaneous functional recovery. Recovery may be due to intrinsic central pattern generators such as for locomotion, the uncovering of dormant anatomical and physiological pathways such as the crossed phrenic for respiration, or to the sprouting of undamaged axons within the spinal cord to establish new connections around or across the injury site. Together the responses to injury and spontaneous efforts for repair represent plastic changes in the central nervous system (CNS) that may result in meaningful functional outcomes, though aberrant sprouting is a possible negative consequence of neuroplasticity that lends caution to the desire for extensive but uncontrolled sprouting.

Article

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.