Recovery of function following lesions in the nervous system requires adaptive changes in surviving circuitries. Here we investigate whether changes in cerebral activation are correlated to spinal cord atrophy and recovery of functionality in individuals with incomplete spinal cord injury (SCI). 19 chronic SCI individuals and 7 age-comparable controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing rhythmic dorsiflexion of the ankle. A significant negative correlation was found between the activation in the ipsilateral motor (M1) and bilateral premotor cortex (PMC) on one hand and the functional ability of the SCI participants measured by the clinical motor score on the other. There was no significant correlation between activation in any other cerebral area and the motor score. Activation in ipsilateral somatosensory cortex (S1), M1 and PMC was negatively correlated to the width of the spinal cord in the left-right direction, where the corticospinal tract is located, but not in the antero-posterior direction. There was a tendency for a negative correlation between cerebral activation in ipsilateral S1, M1 and PMC and the amplitude of motor evoked potentials in the tibialis anterior muscle elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation, but this did not reach statistical significance. There was no correlation between motor score or spinal cord dimensions and the volume of the cortical motor areas. The observations show that lesion of descending tracts in the lateral part of the spinal cord results in increased activation in ipsilateral motor and sensory areas, which may help to compensate for the functional deficit following SCI.
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