The spinal cord-gut-immune axis as a master regulator of health and neurological function after spinal cord injury

Exp Neurol. 2020 Jan;323:113085. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2019.113085. Epub 2019 Oct 22.


Most spinal cord injury (SCI) research programs focus only on the injured spinal cord with the goal of restoring locomotor function by overcoming mechanisms of cell death or axon regeneration failure. Given the importance of the spinal cord as a locomotor control center and the public perception that paralysis is the defining feature of SCI, this "spinal-centric" focus is logical. Unfortunately, such a focus likely will not yield new discoveries that reverse other devastating consequences of SCI including cardiovascular and metabolic disease, bladder/bowel dysfunction and infection. The current review considers how SCI changes the physiological interplay between the spinal cord, the gut and the immune system. A suspected culprit in causing many of the pathological manifestations of impaired spinal cord-gut-immune axis homeostasis is the gut microbiota. After SCI, the composition of the gut microbiota changes, creating a chronic state of gut "dysbiosis". To date, much of what we know about gut dysbiosis was learned from 16S-based taxonomic profiling studies that reveal changes in the composition and abundance of various bacteria. However, this approach has limitations and creates taxonomic "blindspots". Notably, only bacteria can be analyzed. Thus, in this review we also discuss how the application of emerging sequencing technologies can improve our understanding of how the broader ecosystem in the gut is affected by SCI. Specifically, metagenomics will provide researchers with a more comprehensive look at post-injury changes in the gut virome (and mycome). Metagenomics also allows changes in microbe population dynamics to be linked to specific microbial functions that can affect the development and progression of metabolic disease, immune dysfunction and affective disorders after SCI. As these new tools become more readily available and used across the research community, the development of an "ecogenomic" toolbox will facilitate an Eco-Systems Biology approach to study the complex interplay along the spinal cord-gut-immune axis after SCI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases* / etiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases* / physiopathology
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Humans
  • Immune System Phenomena*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries* / complications
  • Spinal Cord Injuries* / physiopathology