Cortical and subcortical plasticity in the brains of humans, primates, and rats after damage to sensory afferents in the dorsal columns of the spinal cord

Exp Neurol. 2008 Feb;209(2):407-16. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2007.06.014. Epub 2007 Jul 6.


The failure of injured axons to regenerate following spinal cord injury deprives brain neurons of their normal sources of activation. These injuries also result in the reorganization of affected areas of the central nervous system that is thought to drive both the ensuing recovery of function and the formation of maladaptive neuronal circuitry. Better understanding of the physiological consequences of novel synaptic connections produced by injury and the mechanisms that control their formation are important to the development of new successful strategies for the treatment of patients with spinal cord injuries. Here we discuss the anatomical, physiological and behavioral changes that take place in response to injury-induced plasticity after damage to the dorsal column pathway in rats and monkeys. Complete section of the dorsal columns of the spinal cord at a high cervical level in monkeys and rats interrupts the ascending axon branches of low threshold mechanoreceptor afferents subserving the forelimb and the rest of the lower body. Such lesions render the corresponding part of the somatotopic representation of primary somatosensory cortex totally unresponsive to tactile stimuli. There are also behavioral consequences of the sensory loss, including an impaired use of the hand/forelimb in manipulating small objects. In monkeys, if some of the afferents from the hand remain intact after dorsal column lesions, these remaining afferents extensively reactivate portions of somatosensory cortex formerly representing the hand. This functional reorganization develops over a postoperative period of 1 month, during which hand use rapidly improves. These recoveries appear to be mediated, at least in part, by the sprouting of preserved afferents within the cuneate nucleus of the dorsal column-trigeminal complex. In rats, such functional collateral sprouting has been promoted by the post-lesion digestion of the perineuronal net in the cuneate nucleus. Thus, this and other therapeutic strategies have the potential of enhancing sensorimotor recoveries after spinal cord injuries in humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / injuries
  • Animals
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology*