The corticospinal tract is an important target for motor recovery after spinal cord injury (SCI) in animals and humans. Voluntary motor output depends on the efficacy of synapses between corticospinal axons and spinal motoneurons, which can be modulated by the precise timing of neuronal spikes. Using noninvasive techniques, we developed tailored protocols for precise timing of the arrival of descending and peripheral volleys at corticospinal-motoneuronal synapses of an intrinsic finger muscle in humans with chronic incomplete SCI. We found that arrival of presynaptic volleys prior to motoneuron discharge enhanced corticospinal transmission and hand voluntary motor output. The reverse order of volley arrival and sham stimulation did not affect or decreased voluntary motor output and electrophysiological outcomes. These findings are the first demonstration that spike timing-dependent plasticity of residual corticospinal-motoneuronal synapses provides a mechanism to improve motor function after SCI. Modulation of residual corticospinal-motoneuronal synapses may present a novel therapeutic target for enhancing voluntary motor output in motor disorders affecting the corticospinal tract.
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