Serotonergic mechanisms in spinal cord injury

Exp Neurol. 2019 Aug;318:174-191. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2019.05.007. Epub 2019 May 11.


Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a tragic event causing irreversible losses of sensory, motor, and autonomic functions, that may also be associated with chronic neuropathic pain. Serotonin (5-HT) neurotransmission in the spinal cord is critical for modulating sensory, motor, and autonomic functions. Following SCI, 5-HT axons caudal to the lesion site degenerate, and the degree of axonal degeneration positively correlates with lesion severity. Rostral to the lesion, 5-HT axons sprout, irrespective of the severity of the injury. Unlike callosal fibers and cholinergic projections, 5-HT axons are more resistant to an inhibitory milieu and undergo active sprouting and regeneration after central nervous system (CNS) traumatism. Numerous studies suggest that a chronic increase in serotonergic neurotransmission promotes 5-HT axon sprouting in the intact CNS. Moreover, recent studies in invertebrates suggest that 5-HT has a pro-regenerative role in injured axons. Here we present a brief description of 5-HT discovery, 5-HT innervation of the CNS, and physiological functions of 5-HT in the spinal cord, including its role in controlling bladder function. We then present a comprehensive overview of changes in serotonergic axons after CNS damage, and discuss their plasticity upon altered 5-HT neurotransmitter levels. Subsequently, we provide an in-depth review of therapeutic approaches targeting 5-HT neurotransmission, as well as other pre-clinical strategies to promote an increase in re-growth of 5-HT axons, and their functional consequences in SCI animal models. Finally, we highlight recent findings signifying the direct role of 5-HT in axon regeneration and suggest strategies to further promote robust long-distance re-growth of 5-HT axons across the lesion site and eventually achieve functional recovery following SCI.

Keywords: Axon regeneration; Axon sprouting; Functional recovery; Plasticity; Serotonin; Spinal cord injury; Tryptophan.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Nerve Regeneration / physiology*
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / metabolism*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Serotonin