The brain communicates with the spinal cord through numerous axon tracts that arise from discrete nuclei, transmit distinct functions, and often collateralize to facilitate the coordination of descending commands. This complexity presents a major challenge to interpreting functional outcomes from therapies that target supraspinal connectivity after injury or disease, while the wide distribution of supraspinal nuclei complicates the delivery of therapeutics. Here we harness retrograde viral vectors to overcome these challenges. We demonstrate that injection of AAV2-Retro to the cervical spinal cord of adult female mice results in highly efficient transduction of supraspinal populations throughout the brainstem, midbrain, and cortex. Some supraspinal populations, including corticospinal and rubrospinal neurons, were transduced with >90% efficiency, with robust transgene expression within 3 d of injection. In contrast, propriospinal and raphe spinal neurons showed much lower rates of retrograde transduction. Using tissue clearing and light-sheet microscopy we present detailed visualizations of descending axons tracts and create a mesoscopic projectome for the spinal cord. Moreover, chemogenetic silencing of supraspinal neurons with retrograde vectors resulted in complete and reversible forelimb paralysis, illustrating effective modulation of supraspinal function. Retrograde vectors were also highly efficient when injected after spinal injury, highlighting therapeutic potential. These data provide a global view of supraspinal connectivity and illustrate the potential of retrograde vectors to parse the functional contributions of supraspinal inputs.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The complexity of descending inputs to the spinal cord presents a major challenge in efforts deliver therapeutics to widespread supraspinal systems, and to interpret their functional effects. Here we demonstrate highly effective gene delivery to diverse supraspinal nuclei using a retrograde viral approach and combine it with tissue clearing and 3D microscopy to map the descending projectome from brain to spinal cord. These data highlight newly developed retrograde viruses as therapeutic and research tools, while offering new insights into supraspinal connectivity.
Keywords: DREADD; corticospinal; light-sheet microscopy; motor control; retrograde gene therapy; supraspinal centers.
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