Transplants and neurotrophic factors increase regeneration and recovery of function after spinal cord injury

Barbara S Bregman, Jean-Valery Coumans, Hai Ning Dai, Penelope L Kuhn, James Lynskey, Marietta McAtee, Faheem Sandhu
Progress in Brain Research 2002, 137: 257-73
Earlier studies suggested that while after spinal cord lesions and transplants at birth, the transplants serve both as a bridge and as a relay to restore supraspinal input caudal to the injury (Bregman, 1994), after injury in the adult the spinal cord transplants serve as a relay, but not as a bridge. We show here, that after complete spinal cord transection in adult rats, delayed spinal cord transplants and exogenous neurotrophic factors, the transplants can also serve as a bridge to restore supraspinal input (Fig. 9). We demonstrate here that when the delivery of transplants and neurotrophins are delayed until 2 weeks after spinal cord transection, the amount of axonal growth and the amount of recovery of function are dramatically increased. Under these conditions, both supraspinal and propriospinal projections to the host spinal cord caudal to the transection are reestablished. The growth of supraspinal axons across the transplant and back into the host spinal cord caudal to the lesion was dependent upon the presence of exogenous neurotrophic support. Without the neurotrophins, only propriospinal axons were able to re-establish connections across the transplant. Studies using peripheral nerve or Schwann cell grafts have shown that some anatomical connectivity can be restored across the injury site, particularly under the influence of neurotrophins (Xu et al., 1995a,b; Cheng et al., 1996; Ye and Houle, 1997). Without neurotrophin treatment, brainstem axons do not enter [figure: see text] the graft (Xu et al., 1995a,b; Cheng et al., 1996; Ye and Houle, 1997). Similarly, cells genetically modified to secrete neurotrophins and transplanted into the spinal cord influence the axonal growth of specific populations of spinally projecting neurons (Tuszynski et al., 1996, 1997; Grill et al., 1997; Blesch and Tuszynski, 1997). Taken together, these studies support a role for neurotrophic factors in the repair of the mature CNS. The regrowth of supraspinal and propriospinal input across the transection site was associated with consistent improvements in hindlimb locomotor function. Animals performed alternating and reciprocal hindlimb stepping with plantar foot contact to the treadmill or stair during ascension. Furthermore, they acquired hindlimb weight support and demonstrated appropriate postural control for balance and equilibrium of all four limbs. After spinal cord injury in the adult, the circuitry underlying rhythmic alternating stepping movements is still present within the spinal cord caudal to the lesion, but is now devoid of supraspinal control. We show here that restoring even relatively small amounts of input allows supraspinal neurons to access the spinal cord circuitry. Removing the re-established supraspinal input after recovery (by retransection rostral to the transplant) abolished the recovery and abolished the serotonergic fibers within the transplant and spinal cord caudal to the transplant. This suggests that at least some of the recovery observed is due to re-establishing supraspinal input across the transplant, rather than a diffuse influence of the transplant on motor recovery. It is unlikely, however, that the greater recovery of function in animals that received delayed transplant and neurotrophins is due solely to the restoration of supraspinal input. Recent work by Ribotta et al. (2000) suggests that segmental plasticity within the spinal cord contributes to weight support and bilateral foot placement after spinal cord transection. This recovery of function occurs after transplants of fetal raphe cells into the adult spinal cord transected at T11. Recovery of function appears to require innervation of the L1-L2 segments with serotonergic fibers, and importantly, animals require external stimulation (tail pinch) to elicit the behavior. In the current study, animals with transection only did not develop stepping overground or on the treadmill without tail pinch, although the transplant and neurotrophin-treated groups did so without external stimuli. Therefore both reorganization of the segmental circuitry and partial restoration of supraspinal input presumably interact to yield the improvements in motor function observed. It is unlikely that the recovery of skilled forelimb movement observed can be mediated solely by reorganization of segmental spinal cord circuitry. We suggest that the restoration of supraspinal input contributes to the recovery observed. It is likely that after CNS injury, reorganization occurs both within the spinal cord and at supraspinal levels, and together contribute to the recovery of automatic and skilled forelimb function and of locomotion. In summary, the therapeutic intervention of tissue transplantation and exogenous neurotrophin support leads to improvements in supraspinal and propriospinal input across the transplant into the host caudal cord and a concomitant improvement in locomotor function. Paradoxically, delaying these interventions for several weeks after a spinal cord transection leads to dramatic improvements in recovery of function and a concomitant restoration of supraspinal input into the host caudal spinal cord. These findings suggest that opportunity for intervention after spinal cord injury may be far greater than originally envisioned, and that CNS neurons with long-standing injuries may be able to re-initiate growth leading to improvement in motor function.

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