Updating perspectives on spinal cord function: motor coordination, timing, relational processing, and memory below the brain

Front Syst Neurosci. 2024 Feb 20:18:1184597. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2024.1184597. eCollection 2024.


Those studying neural systems within the brain have historically assumed that lower-level processes in the spinal cord act in a mechanical manner, to relay afferent signals and execute motor commands. From this view, abstracting temporal and environmental relations is the province of the brain. Here we review work conducted over the last 50 years that challenges this perspective, demonstrating that mechanisms within the spinal cord can organize coordinated behavior (stepping), induce a lasting change in how pain (nociceptive) signals are processed, abstract stimulus-stimulus (Pavlovian) and response-outcome (instrumental) relations, and infer whether stimuli occur in a random or regular manner. The mechanisms that underlie these processes depend upon signal pathways (e.g., NMDA receptor mediated plasticity) analogous to those implicated in brain-dependent learning and memory. New data show that spinal cord injury (SCI) can enable plasticity within the spinal cord by reducing the inhibitory effect of GABA. It is suggested that the signals relayed to the brain may contain information about environmental relations and that spinal cord systems can coordinate action in response to descending signals from the brain. We further suggest that the study of stimulus processing, learning, memory, and cognitive-like processing in the spinal cord can inform our views of brain function, providing an attractive model system. Most importantly, the work has revealed new avenues of treatment for those that have suffered a SCI.

Keywords: ionic plasticity; learning; metaplasticity; pain; plasticity; recovery; spinal cord injury.

Publication types

  • Review