A main goal of rehabilitation strategies in humans with spinal cord injury is to strengthen transmission in spared neural networks. Although neuromodulatory strategies have targeted different sites within the central nervous system to restore motor function following spinal cord injury, the role of cortical targets remain poorly understood. Here, we use 180 pairs of transcranial magnetic stimulation for ∼30 min over the hand representation of the motor cortex at an interstimulus interval mimicking the rhythmicity of descending late indirect (I) waves in corticospinal neurons (4.3 ms; I-wave protocol) or at an interstimulus interval in-between I-waves (3.5 ms; control protocol) on separate days in a randomized order. Late I-waves are thought to arise from trans-synaptic cortical inputs and have a crucial role in the recruitment of spinal motor neurons following spinal cord injury. Motor evoked potentials elicited by transcranial magnetic stimulation, paired-pulse intracortical inhibition, spinal motor neuron excitability (F-waves), index finger abduction force and electromyographic activity as well as a hand dexterity task were measured before and after both protocols in 15 individuals with chronic incomplete cervical spinal cord injury and 17 uninjured participants. We found that motor evoked potentials size increased in spinal cord injury and uninjured participants after the I-wave but not the control protocol for ∼30 to 60 min after the stimulation. Intracortical inhibition decreased and F-wave amplitude and persistence increased after the I-wave but not the control protocol, suggesting that cortical and subcortical networks contributed to changes in corticospinal excitability. Importantly, hand motor output and hand dexterity increased in individuals with spinal cord injury after the I-wave protocol. These results provide the first evidence that late synaptic input to corticospinal neurons may represent a novel therapeutic target for improving motor function in humans with paralysis due to spinal cord injury.
Keywords: cortical mechanisms; motor function; motor recovery; plasticity; spinal cord injury.
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