Kazuhito Morioka, University of California San Francisco, Department of Neurological Surgery, San Francisco, USA

Investigation of loading-related spinal plasticity after Spinal cord Injury (SCI)

Funded in: 2013, 2014, 2015

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Problem: Movement training improves functional recovery, but its mechanisms are not understood and controlled

Target: Weight loading and unloading strategies in rehabilitation methods

Goal: Understanding of the cellular mechanisms of loading-related spinal plasticity to improve rehabilitation


Spinal cord Injury (SCI) produces a devastating syndrome that is characterized by loss of motor and sensory functions as well as the appearance of pain. The effects of neurorehabilitation can be directed to improve recovery of motor function after SCI. Partial bodyweight-supported treadmill training is an established neurorehabilitative procedure for SCI patients to improve walking. This therapy is based on the mechanism that partial unloading facilitates modulation of spinal plasticity during stepping movements. Conversely, immobilization in severe chronic SCI patients is considered to facilitate maladaptive spinal plasticity that can lead to the development of spasticity and exaggerated reflexes.

Although loading/weight bearing produces important sensory afferent signals that regulate locomotion through spinal reflex circuits the specific mechanisms by which loading and unloading shape spinal plasticity after SCI remain poorly understood. The specific goal of Dr. Morioka’s research is to improve understanding of the mechanistic relationship between loading and recovery of motor function.

The projects hypothesis is that loading alters spinal plasticity early after SCI. Preliminary data show that sensory stimuli coming from the body can produce either adaptive or maladaptive spinal plasticity. The changes are linked to persistent alteration in the excitability in the spinal cord which is mediated by the receptor for glutamate.

The proposed research grant will investigate these cellular mechanisms in spinal plasticity after hindlimb unloading and reloading using confocal microscopic and biochemical techniques.
The findings may provide an understanding of the cellular mechanisms of loading-related spinal plasticity after SCI and result in novel targets for improved rehabilitation.