Spinal cord injury alters spinal Shox2 interneurons by enhancing excitatory synaptic input and serotonergic modulation while maintaining intrinsic properties in mouse

J Neurosci. 2021 May 13;41(27):5833-5848. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1576-20.2021. Online ahead of print.


Neural circuitry generating locomotor rhythm and pattern is located in the spinal cord. Most spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur above the level of spinal locomotor neurons; therefore, these circuits are a target for improving motor function after SCI. Despite being relatively intact below the injury, locomotor circuitry undergoes substantial plasticity with the loss of descending control. Information regarding cell-type specific plasticity within locomotor circuits is limited. Shox2 interneurons (INs) have been linked to locomotor rhythm generation and patterning, making them a potential therapeutic target for the restoration of locomotion after SCI. The goal of the present study was to identify SCI-induced plasticity at the level of Shox2 INs in a complete thoracic transection model in adult male and female mice. Whole cell patch clamp recordings of Shox2 INs revealed minimal changes in intrinsic excitability properties after SCI. However, afferent stimulation resulted in mixed excitatory and inhibitory input to Shox2 INs in uninjured mice which became predominantly excitatory after SCI. Shox2 INs were differentially modulated by serotonin (5-HT) in a concentration-dependent manner in uninjured conditions but following SCI, 5-HT predominantly depolarized Shox2 INs. 5-HT7 receptors mediated excitatory effects on Shox2 INs from both uninjured and SCI mice, but activation of 5-HT2B/2C receptors enhanced excitability of Shox2 INs only after SCI. Overall, SCI alters sensory afferent input pathways to Shox2 INs and 5-HT modulation of Shox2 INs to enhance excitatory responses. Our findings provide relevant information regarding the locomotor circuitry response to SCI that could benefit strategies to improve locomotion after SCI.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTCurrent therapies to gain locomotor control after SCI target spinal locomotor circuitry. Improvements in therapeutic strategies will require a better understanding of the SCI-induced plasticity within specific locomotor elements and their controllers, including sensory afferents and serotonergic modulation. Here, we demonstrate that excitability and intrinsic properties of Shox2 interneurons, which contribute to the generation of the locomotor rhythm and pattering, remain intact after SCI. However, SCI induces plasticity in both sensory afferent pathways and serotonergic modulation, enhancing the activation and excitation of Shox2 interneurons. Our findings will impact future strategies looking to harness these changes with the ultimate goal of restoring functional locomotion after SCI.