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Keywords:

  • cortical reorganization;
  • motor cortex;
  • navigated TMS;
  • plasticity;
  • spinal atrophy;
  • spinal cord injury

Abstract

Functional imaging studies, using blood oxygen level-dependent signals, have demonstrated cortical reorganization of forearm muscle maps towards the denervated leg area following spinal cord injury (SCI). The extent of cortical reorganization was predicted by spinal atrophy. We therefore expected to see a similar shift in the motor output of corticospinal projections of the forearm towards more denervated lower body parts in volunteers with cervical injury. Therefore, we used magnetic resonance imaging-navigated transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to non-invasively measure changes in cortical map reorganization of a forearm muscle in the primary motor cortex (M1) following human SCI. We recruited volunteers with chronic cervical injuries resulting in bilateral upper and lower motor impairment and severe cervical atrophy and healthy control participants. All participants underwent a T1-weighted anatomical scan prior to the TMS experiment. The motor thresholds of the extensor digitorum communis muscle (EDC) were defined, and its cortical muscle representation was mapped. The centre of gravity (CoG), the cortical silent period (CSP) and active motor thresholds (AMTs) were measured. Regression analysis was used to investigate relationships between trauma-related anatomical changes and TMS parameters. SCI participants had increased AMTs (P = 0.01) and increased CSP duration (P = 0.01). The CoG of the EDC motor-evoked potential map was located more posteriorly towards the anatomical hand representation of M1 in SCI participants than in controls (P = 0.03). Crucially, cord atrophy was negatively associated with AMT and CSP duration (r2 ≥ 0.26, P < 0.05). In conclusion, greater spinal cord atrophy predicts changes at the cortical level that lead to reduced excitability and increased inhibition. Therefore, cortical forearm motor representations may reorganize towards the intrinsic hand motor representation to maximize output to muscles of the impaired forearm following SCI.