Scientists have developed a non-invasive technique for unraveling the complex dynamics generated by spinal cord circuits to unprecedented detail, a first in functional magnetic resonance imaging that may one day help diagnose spinal cord dysfunction or injury, they report, in Neuron.

These scientists, from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, combined tailored protocols for spinal cord fMRI with advanced analysis techniques, in order to disentangle signals from the spinal cord and clearly view it 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, a media release from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne explains.

“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. We managed to decompose spontaneous spinal activity into meaningful networks, with a level of neuroanatomical detail that had never been reached before.”

— Nawal Kinany, the study’s first author

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.

Images Provide 4D View of Spinal Cord

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.”

— Dimitri Van De Ville

In their study, the scientists targeted the spinal cord’s 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, per the release.

“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.

— Silvestro 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, they conclude.

[Source(s): Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Science Daily]

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