Restless nature of human spinal cord revealed by non-invasive functional imaging

September 09, 2020

The spinal cord roughly looks like a long tube, with a diameter of only 1.5 cm, and yet this crucial part of the nervous system is essential for controlling how our arms and legs move, for giving us our sense of touch as well as a notion of where our bodies are in space.

How does this seemingly simple structure support complex behaviors? To answer this question, scientists have longed for a way to observe the spinal cord's function in vivo. Until recently, they needed to resort to animal studies, but the advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is now providing a new window into the richness of spinal cord signals, directly in humans.

Now, scientists at EPFL have combined tailored protocols for spinal cord fMRI with advanced analysis techniques, in order to disentangle these signals and clearly view the spinal cord in action. Tested on 19 healthy subjects, the scientists obtained unprecedented views of the spinal cord's functional architecture and showed for the first time just how dynamic the spinal cord is, even for subjects at rest. The results are published in today's issue of Neuron.

"One of the main challenges about observing spinal cord function is getting rid of noise from the rest of the subject's body, like breathing, the heartbeat, or simply seeing beyond the surrounding vertebral bones," explains Nawal Kinany, first author of the study. "We managed to decompose spontaneous spinal activity into meaningful networks, with a level of neuroanatomical detail that had never been reached before."

The study was done at Campus Biotech in collaboration with Silvestro Micera who is the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Translational Neuroengineering at EPFL and Professor of Bioelectronics at Scuola Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, as well as with Dimitri Van De Ville who leads EPFL's Medical Imaging Processing Lab and is also affiliated with the Department of Radiology and Medical Informatics of the Geneva University.

From the perspective of the subject, one simply has to lie down in an fMRI scanner and remain immobile throughout the scan, typically around 10 minutes. The images resulting from the scan are then analyzed to provide a 4-dimensional view - through space and time - to view the dynamics of spinal circuits within the anatomy of the subject.

"These results are clear evidence that spinal resting-state activity is richly organized and thus must bear physiological relevance beyond what was assumed so far," explains Van De Ville.

Given its central position at the interface between the brain and the rest of body, the spinal cord is a key player in all human behaviour. The scientists targeted the cervical level because of its involvement in controlling arm and hand muscles. Their approach could help understand how spinal circuits are orchestrated to support the wide range of movements we perform in our everyday life.

"Only a deeper understanding of human motor control can allow for the development of more effective neurorehabilitation approaches. Our new method provides a very important tool in this direction," furthers Micera.

Tested for now on healthy subjects, the scientists believe that these new protocols will one day be a valuable tool for evaluating the status of dysfunctional or injured spinal cord circuitry, which could promote the development of targeted therapies that rebalance spinal activity or optimally harness the spared connections.

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to