Maladaptive spinal plasticity opposes spinal learning and recovery in spinal cord injury. Academic Article uri icon


  • Synaptic plasticity within the spinal cord has great potential to facilitate recovery of function after spinal cord injury (SCI). Spinal plasticity can be induced in an activity-dependent manner even without input from the brain after complete SCI. A mechanistic basis for these effects is provided by research demonstrating that spinal synapses have many of the same plasticity mechanisms that are known to underlie learning and memory in the brain. In addition, the lumbar spinal cord can sustain several forms of learning and memory, including limb-position training. However, not all spinal plasticity promotes recovery of function. Central sensitization of nociceptive (pain) pathways in the spinal cord may emerge in response to various noxious inputs, demonstrating that plasticity within the spinal cord may contribute to maladaptive pain states. In this review we discuss interactions between adaptive and maladaptive forms of activity-dependent plasticity in the spinal cord below the level of SCI. The literature demonstrates that activity-dependent plasticity within the spinal cord must be carefully tuned to promote adaptive spinal training. Prior work from our group has shown that stimulation that is delivered in a limb position-dependent manner or on a fixed interval can induce adaptive plasticity that promotes future spinal cord learning and reduces nociceptive hyper-reactivity. On the other hand, stimulation that is delivered in an unsynchronized fashion, such as randomized electrical stimulation or peripheral skin injuries, can generate maladaptive spinal plasticity that undermines future spinal cord learning, reduces recovery of locomotor function, and promotes nociceptive hyper-reactivity after SCI. We review these basic phenomena, how these findings relate to the broader spinal plasticity literature, discuss the cellular and molecular mechanisms, and finally discuss implications of these and other findings for improved rehabilitative therapies after SCI.

published proceedings

  • Front Physiol

altmetric score

  • 1.75

author list (cited authors)

  • Ferguson, A. R., Huie, J. R., Crown, E. D., Baumbauer, K. M., Hook, M. A., Garraway, S. M., ... Grau, J. W.

citation count

  • 72

complete list of authors

  • Ferguson, Adam R||Huie, J Russell||Crown, Eric D||Baumbauer, Kyle M||Hook, Michelle A||Garraway, Sandra M||Lee, Kuan H||Hoy, Kevin C||Grau, James W

publication date

  • December 2012