Experimental neurology

Combined motor cortex and spinal cord neuromodulation promotes corticospinal system functional and structural plasticity and motor function after injury.

PMID 26708732


An important strategy for promoting voluntary movements after motor system injury is to harness activity-dependent corticospinal tract (CST) plasticity. We combine forelimb motor cortex (M1) activation with co-activation of its cervical spinal targets in rats to promote CST sprouting and skilled limb movement after pyramidal tract lesion (PTX). We used a two-step experimental design in which we first established the optimal combined stimulation protocol in intact rats and then used the optimal protocol in injured animals to promote CST repair and motor recovery. M1 was activated epidurally using an electrical analog of intermittent theta burst stimulation (iTBS). The cervical spinal cord was co-activated by trans-spinal direct current stimulation (tsDCS) that was targeted to the cervical enlargement, simulated from finite element method. In intact rats, forelimb motor evoked potentials (MEPs) were strongly facilitated during iTBS and for 10 min after cessation of stimulation. Cathodal, not anodal, tsDCS alone facilitated MEPs and also produced a facilitatory aftereffect that peaked at 10 min. Combined iTBS and cathodal tsDCS (c-tsDCS) produced further MEP enhancement during stimulation, but without further aftereffect enhancement. Correlations between forelimb M1 local field potentials and forelimb electromyogram (EMG) during locomotion increased after electrical iTBS alone and further increased with combined stimulation (iTBS+c-tsDCS). This optimized combined stimulation was then used to promote function after PTX because it enhanced functional connections between M1 and spinal circuits and greater M1 engagement in muscle contraction than either stimulation alone. Daily application of combined M1 iTBS on the intact side and c-tsDCS after PTX (10 days, 27 min/day) significantly restored skilled movements during horizontal ladder walking. Stimulation produced a 5.4-fold increase in spared ipsilateral CST terminations. Combined neuromodulation achieves optimal motor recovery and substantial CST outgrowth with only 27 min of daily stimulation compared with 6h, as in our prior study, making it a potential therapy for humans with spinal cord injury.