Associative plasticity occurs when two stimuli converge on a common neural target. We sought to use the strong convergence between motor and sensory systems in the spinal cord to restore movement after spinal cord injury (SCI). We developed a paired motor cortex and dorsal spinal cord stimulation protocol to target this interaction called spinal cord associative plasticity (SCAP). Subthreshold spinal cord stimulation strongly augments motor cortex evoked potentials at the time they are paired, but only when they arrive synchronously in the spinal cord. We tested the hypothesis that this paired stimulation effect depended on cortical descending motor and spinal cord proprioceptive afferents. Selective inactivation of either of these pathways fully abrogated the paired stimulation effect. We then found that repetitive pairing in awake rats increased spinal excitability for hours after pairing ended. To apply this protocol as therapy, we optimized the parameters to promote strong and long-lasting effects. This effect was just as strong in rats with cervical SCI as in un-injured rats, demonstrating that spared connections after SCI are sufficient to support this plasticity. When 30 minutes of paired stimulation was done over 10 days, the effect of pairing was sustained for weeks. In addition, H-reflex modulation improved, showing decreased hyperreflexia that also persisted for weeks. Importantly, repetitive paired stimulation supported enhanced recovery of forelimb dexterity in rats after SCI with no augmentation of injury-induced neuropathic pain. We conclude that SCAP strengthens sensory-motor connections within the spinal cord, resulting in decreased hyperreflexia and improved forelimb function after SCI.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience