Vagus Nerve Stimulation Paired With Rehabilitative Training Enhances Motor Recovery After Bilateral Spinal Cord Injury to Cervical Forelimb Motor Pools.
Darrow MJ, Torres M, Sosa MJ, Danaphongse TT, Haider Z, Rennaker RL, Kilgard MP, Hays SA
Closed-loop vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) paired with rehabilitative training has emerged as a strategy to enhance recovery after neurological injury. Previous studies demonstrate that brief bursts of closed-loop VNS paired with rehabilitative training substantially improve recovery of forelimb motor function in models of unilateral and bilateral contusive spinal cord injury (SCI) at spinal level C5/6. While these findings provide initial evidence of the utility of VNS for SCI, the injury model used in these studies spares the majority of alpha motor neurons originating in C7-T1 that innervate distal forelimb muscles. Because the clinical manifestation of SCI in many patients involves damage at these levels, it is important to define whether damage to the distal forelimb motor neuron pools limits VNS-dependent recovery. In this study, we assessed recovery of forelimb function in rats that received a bilateral incomplete contusive SCI at C7/8 and underwent extensive rehabilitative training with or without paired VNS. The study design, including planned sample size, assessments, and statistical comparisons, was preregistered prior to beginning data collection ( osf.io/ysvgf/ ). VNS paired with rehabilitative training significantly improved recovery of volitional forelimb strength compared to equivalent rehabilitative training without VNS. Additionally, VNS-dependent enhancement of recovery generalized to 2 similar, but untrained, forelimb tasks. These findings indicate that damage to alpha motor neurons does not prevent VNS-dependent enhancement of recovery and provides additional evidence to support the evaluation of closed-loop VNS paired with rehabilitation in patients with incomplete cervical SCI.