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Resting-state fMRI may be a valuable tool for assessing neural plasticity after traumatic spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injury (SCI) is a common cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. The functional deficits associated with SCI, such as paralysis, are typically irreversible. SCI is also known to impair neural connectivity, or the ability of cells in the brain to communicate with one another. Fortunately, the human brain has a reparative quality known as plasticity, which allows nerve cells to compensate for injury and disease by adjusting their connections to account for changes in the environment. After an SCI, neural connections in the brain may reorganize themselves to balance structural damage caused by injury.

Clinicians use brain imaging techniques to assess neural connectivity after SCI. Resting state function MRI (rs-fMRI), a type of brain imaging, is thought to be a reliable method for determining functional connectivity because it can record fluctuations in blood-oxygen levels. A recent Japanese study used an animal model to investigate the effectiveness of rs-fMRI as a tool for measuring plasticity in certain areas of the cerebral cortex. They discovered that SCI caused reduced neural connectivity between areas of the brain that control motor functions and sensory functions. However, they found that connectivity between sense-related areas and motivation-related areas of the brain increased, suggesting that the brain’s natural plasticity compensates for reduced functional connectivity by changing and strengthening existing pathways.

Because the fs-MRI can detect minor fluctuations in blood oxygen, this brain imaging method is a promising tool for assessing neural plasticity after SCI. Importantly, the fs-MRI confirms the brain’s ability to compensate for structural damage by increasing neural connectivity along new pathways. Further research is necessary to fully understand the brain’s capacity for repair and regeneration following injury.

Matsubayashi K, Nagoshi N, Komaki Y, et al. Assessing cortical plasticity after spinal cord injury by using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging in awake mice. Scientific Reports. (September 2018).

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