The spinal cord engages in its own learning of motor tasks independent of the brain, according to an imaging study published in PLOS Biology. The results of the study, conducted by principal investigator Julien Doyon and colleagues of the University of Montreal, Canada, may offer new opportunities for rehabilitation after spinal cord injury.
Learning a complex motor task induces changes in the brain, which can be monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). To date it has been challenging to perform fMRI on the brain and spinal cord simultaneously, and thus it has been difficult to determine whether observed changes in the spinal cord during motor skill acquisition depend entirely on signals from the brain, or occur independently. That barrier was overcome for the first time using an 3.0T MRI scanner. This scanner had a field of view long enough to image the brain and the cervical spinal cord at the same time.
Using this technique on subjects performing a complex finger tapping task, the authors showed that learning-related changes in blood flow in the spinal cord were independent of changes in blood flow in the brain regions involved in the task. The results of the study indicate that the spinal cord plays an active role in the very earliest stages of motor learning. According to the authors, these findings open new avenues for rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries, as they demonstrate that this part of the central nervous system is much more plastic than assumed before.Source: PLOS Biology and Eurekalert