Learning from the spinal cord: how the study of spinal cord plasticity informs our view of learning. Academic Article uri icon


  • The paper reviews research examining whether and how training can induce a lasting change in spinal cord function. A framework for the study of learning, and some essential issues in experimental design, are discussed. A core element involves delayed assessment under common conditions. Research has shown that brain systems can induce a lasting (memory-like) alteration in spinal function. Neurons within the lower (lumbosacral) spinal cord can also adapt when isolated from the brain by means of a thoracic transection. Using traditional learning paradigms, evidence suggests that spinal neurons support habituation and sensitization as well as Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning. At a neurobiological level, spinal systems support phenomena (e.g., long-term potentiation), and involve mechanisms (e.g., NMDA mediated plasticity, protein synthesis) implicated in brain-dependent learning and memory. Spinal learning also induces modulatory effects that alter the capacity for learning. Uncontrollable/unpredictable stimulation disables the capacity for instrumental learning and this effect has been linked to the cytokine tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Predictable/controllable stimulation enables learning and counters the adverse effects of uncontrollable stimulation through a process that depends upon brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Finally, uncontrollable, but not controllable, nociceptive stimulation impairs recovery after a contusion injury. A process-oriented approach (neurofunctionalism) is outlined that encourages a broader view of learning phenomena.

published proceedings

  • Neurobiol Learn Mem

altmetric score

  • 5.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Grau, J. W

citation count

  • 37

complete list of authors

  • Grau, James W

publication date

  • February 2014