Aya Takeoka, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechonologie, Neuroelectronics Research Flanders, Leuven, Belgium

Enhancing integration of somatosensory feedback in locomotor recovery after severe spinal cord injuries

Funded in: 2019, 2020, 2021


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Problem: Unknown how rehabilitative training, electrical stimulation takes advantage of the built-in ability of the spinal cord below the lesion to generate movements.

Target: Understanding how a specific group of nerve cells that receive inputs from the skin, muscles and tendons is involved in learning to walk again.

Goal: Adapt and optimize configurations of epidural or transcutaneous electrodes and identify a unique, gene expression profile which may reveal potential therapeutic targets.

A severe spinal cord injury disrupts connection between the brain and the spinal cord. While different types of nerve cells in the spinal cord below the lesion retain their ability to generate movements even after injury, disconnection from the brain deprives the spinal cord of excitation, leading to chronic motor impairment.

Rehabilitative training aims at facilitating motor recovery of paraplegic patients by enhancing sensory input to activate the spinal cord below injury. Combined with such rehabilitative training, electrical stimulation takes advantage of the built-in ability of the spinal cord below the lesion to generate movements. As spinal cord injury patients rely on remaining brain input and the spinal cord to learn to walk again, it is important to understand the capacity of the spinal cord below injury to generate locomotor output.

Sensory feedback from the skin, muscles and tendons provides essential information related to movement. Each type of sensory input connects to different types of nerve cells in the spinal cord to selectively activate them depending on a movement pattern. The research group focus their analyses on understanding how a specific group of nerve cells that receive inputs from the skin, muscles and tendons is involved in learning to walk again. Using a combination of genetic engineering in mice and virus technology, they will study how activity manipulation of these nerve cells alters locomotor recovery. In addition, they will identify their gene expression patterns to examine whether they can specifically target them to facilitate locomotor improvement after spinal cord injury.

Knowledge gained from this proposal will help
1) adapt and optimize configurations of epidural or transcutaneous electrodes so that excitation of an injured spinal cord can be applied in a task-specific manner, and
2) identify a unique, gene expression profile which may reveal potential therapeutic targets.