© Michael Fehlings

Spinal cord imaging – a status quo

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Imagine how difficult it would be for a doctor to treat a broken arm if x-rays hadn’t been discovered. The X-ray technology allows scientists, doctors and surgeons to look inside the human body without cutting it open.

Also, the spinal cord tissue can be “visualized” using special imaging techniques. The current techniques include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and computed tomography (CT). But – unfortunately - unlike the visualisation of a broken arm, imaging of the spinal cord is extremely for various reasons.

One major reason is that the spinal cord tissue is a very small structure encased within a thick and variable layer of skin, fat, muscles, cartilage and bone. In addition, the circulation of internal fluids causes the spinal cord to move within its canal. With the current imaging techniques the neural spinal tissue can only be visualised as a small, moving object hidden within a sealed box. And, to complicate things further, most patients have metallic implants, which interfere with the imaging techniques.

This situation is a problem, because visualising changes in the tissue is very important, not only for evaluating the course of disease but also the efficiency of novel therapies.

In a joined effort, the International Spinal Research Trust and the Wings for Life Foundation organized a meeting to promote the field of spinal cord imaging. International experts attended this meeting and identified the current state and future challenges in the field of spinal cord imaging. 

During the discussion it appeared that despite the progress that is made, only a small number of research labs in the world are working on spinal cord imaging methods thus limiting the development of new techniques and their application within a clinical setting. The panel of scientists concluded that the fastest way to realize the potential of these methods is to make the most advanced techniques more widely accessible. This could be achieved by encouraging collaboration between researchers, equipment manufacturers and software developers, a step the ISRT and Wings for Life agreed on.


The results of this workshop were publicised in the journal Neuroimage. The first publication, entitled “The current state-of-the-art of spinal cord imaging: Methods” focused on the technical challenges. The second publication, entitled “The current state-of-the-art of spinal cord imaging: Applications” focused on the clinical application of cutting edge techniques that need adoption into the clinical scenario.