Patrick Whelan, Clinical Neurosciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

Activating identified diencephalic neurons to promote recovery of function following SCI

Funded in: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018

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Problem: After an incomplete spinal cord injury descending nerve fibers that cross the lesion are not always optimized to assist in recovery.

Target: By investigating areas in the sub-thalamic locomotor area (SLR) we will map out connectivity and function to locomotor areas of the spinal cord and brainstem.

Goal: The use of combinatorial stimulation approaches to activate descending pathways from the SLR will aid in recovery of function following a spinal cord injury.


Recovery of motor function following spinal cord injury is partly dependent on plasticity of spinal cord networks that generate locomotion. This plasticity is driven by areas of the brain that innervate these spinal cord regions and also by input from receptors in the limbs located caudal to the lesion. Although several areas of the brain elicit locomotion, our knowledge of key areas that control goal-directed locomotion in the diencephalon remains poorly understood. This is important because these regions of the brain project to both the spinal cord and locomotor areas of the brainstem. Our central idea is that activation of the SLR will contribute to functional recovery following spinal cord injury.

Our first set of experiments will be to apply modern tracing techniques to fully understand the connectivity of this important area of the brain and importantly activate specific connections to examine their function in freely moving animals. Once we understand the function of these nuclei under normal circumstances we will examine how they remodel following a spinal cord injury. These experiments are important because they will allow us to design specific stimulation strategies to accelerate recovery of function in animal models of spinal cord injury.

In summary our set of experiments will provide a detailed roadmap of connectivity and function in an area of the brain critical for goal-directed movements. This knowledge will allow us to design new combinatorial approaches to improve function in people who incur a spinal cord injury.