Electrical epidural stimulation of the cervical spinal cord: implications for spinal respiratory neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury

J Neurophysiol. 2021 Aug 1;126(2):607-626. doi: 10.1152/jn.00625.2020. Epub 2021 Jul 7.


Traumatic cervical spinal cord injury (cSCI) can lead to damage of bulbospinal pathways to the respiratory motor nuclei and consequent life-threatening respiratory insufficiency due to respiratory muscle paralysis/paresis. Reports of electrical epidural stimulation (EES) of the lumbosacral spinal cord to enable locomotor function after SCI are encouraging, with some evidence of facilitating neural plasticity. Here, we detail the development and success of EES in recovering locomotor function, with consideration of stimulation parameters and safety measures to develop effective EES protocols. EES is just beginning to be applied in other motor, sensory, and autonomic systems; however, there has only been moderate success in preclinical studies aimed at improving breathing function after cSCI. Thus, we explore the rationale for applying EES to the cervical spinal cord, targeting the phrenic motor nucleus for the restoration of breathing. We also suggest cellular/molecular mechanisms by which EES may induce respiratory plasticity, including a brief examination of sex-related differences in these mechanisms. Finally, we suggest that more attention be paid to the effects of specific electrical parameters that have been used in the development of EES protocols and how that can impact the safety and efficacy for those receiving this therapy. Ultimately, we aim to inform readers about the potential benefits of EES in the phrenic motor system and encourage future studies in this area.

Keywords: electrochemical analysis; epidural stimulation; respiratory neuroplasticity; spinal cord injury.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cervical Cord / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Respiration*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / rehabilitation
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / therapy*
  • Spinal Cord Stimulation / methods*