Plastic changes of neural circuits occur after spinal cord injury (SCI) at various level of the central nervous system. In this review we will focus on delineating the pathophysiological mechanisms of the brain plasticity changes following SCI, based on the existing neuroimaging and neurophysiological evidence in experimental models and humans. In animal experiments, reorganization of the sensory topography as well as of the topographical map of primary motor and premotor cortices have been reported in several studies. Brain imaging revealed that cortical representation in response to spared forelimb stimulation early enlarges and invades adjacent sensory-deprived hind limb territory. Electrophysiological studies demonstrated that the deafferentation due to SCI can immediately change the state of large cortical networks within 1h, and that these changes play a critical role in the functional reorganization after SCI. In humans neuroimaging also showed shifts of functional motor and sensory cortical representations that relate to the severity of SCI. In patients with cervical SCI, cortical forearm motor representations, as assessed by means of transcranial magnetic stimulation, may reorganize towards the intrinsic hand motor representation to maximize output to muscles of the impaired forearm. Excessive or aberrant reorganisation of cerebral cortex may also have pathological consequences, such as phantom sensations or neuropathic pain. Integrated neuroimaging and neurophysiological approaches may also lead to the development of new therapeutic strategies, which have the potential of enhancing sensorimotor recovery in patients with SCI.
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