Microstructural plasticity in nociceptive pathways after spinal cord injury

J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2021 May 26;92(8):863-871. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2020-325580. Online ahead of print.


Objective: To track the interplay between (micro-) structural changes along the trajectories of nociceptive pathways and its relation to the presence and intensity of neuropathic pain (NP) after spinal cord injury (SCI).

Methods: A quantitative neuroimaging approach employing a multiparametric mapping protocol was used, providing indirect measures of myelination (via contrasts such as magnetisation transfer (MT) saturation, longitudinal relaxation (R1)) and iron content (via effective transverse relaxation rate (R2*)) was used to track microstructural changes within nociceptive pathways. In order to characterise concurrent changes along the entire neuroaxis, a combined brain and spinal cord template embedded in the statistical parametric mapping framework was used. Multivariate source-based morphometry was performed to identify naturally grouped patterns of structural variation between individuals with and without NP after SCI.

Results: In individuals with NP, lower R1 and MT values are evident in the primary motor cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, while increases in R2* are evident in the cervical cord, periaqueductal grey (PAG), thalamus and anterior cingulate cortex when compared with pain-free individuals. Lower R1 values in the PAG and greater R2* values in the cervical cord are associated with NP intensity.

Conclusions: The degree of microstructural changes across ascending and descending nociceptive pathways is critically implicated in the maintenance of NP. Tracking maladaptive plasticity unravels the intimate relationships between neurodegenerative and compensatory processes in NP states and may facilitate patient monitoring during therapeutic trials related to pain and neuroregeneration.