Spinal cord compression is associated with brain plasticity in degenerative cervical myelopathy

Brain Commun. 2021 Jun 22;3(3):fcab131. doi: 10.1093/braincomms/fcab131. eCollection 2021.

Abstract

The impact of spinal cord compression severity on brain plasticity and prognostic determinates is not yet fully understood. We investigated the association between the severity of spinal cord compression in patients with degenerative cervical myelopathy, a progressive disease of the spine, and functional plasticity in the motor cortex and subcortical areas using functional magnetic resonance imaging. A 3.0 T MRI scanner was used to acquire functional images of the brain in 23 degenerative cervical myelopathy patients. Patients were instructed to perform a structured finger-tapping task to activate the motor cortex to assess the extent of cortical activation. T2-weighted images of the brain and spine were also acquired to quantify the severity of spinal cord compression. The observed blood oxygen level-dependent signal increase in the contralateral primary motor cortex was associated with spinal cord compression severity when patients tapped with their left hand (r = 0.49, P = 0.02) and right hand (r = 0.56, P = 0.005). The volume of activation in the contralateral primary motor cortex also increased with spinal cord compression severity when patients tapped with their left hand (r = 0.55, P = 0.006) and right hand (r = 0.45, P = 0.03). The subcortical areas (cerebellum, putamen, caudate and thalamus) also demonstrated a significant relationship with compression severity. It was concluded that degenerative cervical myelopathy patients with severe spinal cord compression recruit larger regions of the motor cortex to perform finger-tapping tasks, which suggests that this adaptation is a compensatory response to neurological injury and tissue damage in the spinal cord.

Keywords: cervical myelopathy; conventional T2-weighted MRI; cortical plasticity; functional MRI; motor cortex.