Recovery of lower-limb function after spinal cord injury (SCI) likely depends on transmission in the corticospinal pathway. Here, we examined whether paired corticospinal-motoneuronal stimulation (PCMS) changes transmission at spinal synapses of lower-limb motoneurons in humans with chronic incomplete SCI and aged-matched controls. We used 200 pairs of stimuli where corticospinal volleys evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) over the leg representation of the motor cortex were timed to arrive at corticospinal-motoneuronal synapses of the tibialis anterior (TA) muscle 2 ms before antidromic potentials evoked in motoneurons by electrical stimulation of the common peroneal nerve (PCMS+) or when antidromic potentials arrived 15 or 28 ms before corticospinal volleys (PCMS-) on separate days. Motor evoked potentials (MEPs) elicited by TMS and electrical stimulation were measured in the TA muscle before and after each stimulation protocol. After PCMS+, the size of MEPs elicited by TMS and electrical stimulation increased for up to 30 min in control and SCI participants. Notably, this was accompanied by increases in TA electromyographic activity and ankle dorsiflexion force in both groups, suggesting that this plasticity has functional implications. After PCMS-, MEPs elicited by TMS and electrical stimulation were suppressed if afferent input from the common peroneal nerve reduced TA MEP size during paired stimulation in both groups. In conclusion, PCMS elicits spike-timing-dependent changes at spinal synapses of lower-limb motoneurons in humans and has potential to improve lower-limb motor output following SCI.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Approaches that aim to enhance corticospinal transmission to lower-limb muscles following spinal cord injury (SCI) are needed. We demonstrate that paired corticomotoneuronal stimulation (PCMS) can enhance plasticity at spinal synapses of lower-limb motoneurons in humans with and without SCI. We propose that PCMS has potential for improving motor output in leg muscles in individuals with damage to the corticospinal tract.
Keywords: corticomotoneuronal; corticospinal; foot drop; neurophysiology; neuroplasticity; spike timing-dependent plasticity; spinal cord injury.