Disability, atrophy and cortical reorganization following spinal cord injury

Brain. 2011 Jun;134(Pt 6):1610-22. doi: 10.1093/brain/awr093. Epub 2011 May 17.


The impact of traumatic spinal cord injury on structural integrity, cortical reorganization and ensuing disability is variable and may depend on a dynamic interaction between the severity of local damage and the capacity of the brain for plastic reorganization. We investigated trauma-induced anatomical changes in the spinal cord and brain, and explored their relationship to functional changes in sensorimotor cortex. Structural changes were assessed using cross-sectional cord area, voxel-based morphometry and voxel-based cortical thickness of T1-weighted images in 10 subjects with cervical spinal cord injury and 16 controls. Cortical activation in response to right-sided (i) handgrip; and (ii) median and tibial nerve stimulation were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Regression analyses explored associations between cord area, grey and white matter volume, cortical activations and thickness, and disability. Subjects with spinal cord injury had impaired upper and lower limb function bilaterally, a 30% reduced cord area, smaller white matter volume in the pyramids and left cerebellar peduncle, and smaller grey matter volume and cortical thinning in the leg area of the primary motor and sensory cortex compared with controls. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed increased activation in the left primary motor cortex leg area during handgrip and the left primary sensory cortex face area during median nerve stimulation in subjects with spinal cord injury compared with controls, but no increased activation following tibial nerve stimulation. A smaller cervical cord area was associated with impaired upper limb function and increased activations with handgrip and median nerve stimulation, but reduced activations with tibial nerve stimulation. Increased sensory deficits were associated with increased activations in the left primary sensory cortex face area due to median nerve stimulation. In conclusion, spinal cord injury leads to cord atrophy, cortical atrophy of primary motor and sensory cortex, and cortical reorganization of the sensorimotor system. The degree of cortical reorganization is predicted by spinal atrophy and is associated with significant disability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Atrophy / pathology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / blood supply
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Disability Evaluation
  • Disabled Persons*
  • Electric Stimulation / methods
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Median Nerve / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Recovery of Function / physiology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Spinal Cord / blood supply
  • Spinal Cord / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / complications*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Tibial Nerve / physiology
  • Upper Extremity / physiopathology
  • Wrist / innervation