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1.  Extensive Neuronal Differentiation of Human Neural Stem Cell Grafts in Adult Rat Spinal Cord 
PLoS Medicine  2007;4(2):e39.
Effective treatments for degenerative and traumatic diseases of the nervous system are not currently available. The support or replacement of injured neurons with neural grafts, already an established approach in experimental therapeutics, has been recently invigorated with the addition of neural and embryonic stem-derived precursors as inexhaustible, self-propagating alternatives to fetal tissues. The adult spinal cord, i.e., the site of common devastating injuries and motor neuron disease, has been an especially challenging target for stem cell therapies. In most cases, neural stem cell (NSC) transplants have shown either poor differentiation or a preferential choice of glial lineages.
Methods and Findings
In the present investigation, we grafted NSCs from human fetal spinal cord grown in monolayer into the lumbar cord of normal or injured adult nude rats and observed large-scale differentiation of these cells into neurons that formed axons and synapses and established extensive contacts with host motor neurons. Spinal cord microenvironment appeared to influence fate choice, with centrally located cells taking on a predominant neuronal path, and cells located under the pia membrane persisting as NSCs or presenting with astrocytic phenotypes. Slightly fewer than one-tenth of grafted neurons differentiated into oligodendrocytes. The presence of lesions increased the frequency of astrocytic phenotypes in the white matter.
NSC grafts can show substantial neuronal differentiation in the normal and injured adult spinal cord with good potential of integration into host neural circuits. In view of recent similar findings from other laboratories, the extent of neuronal differentiation observed here disputes the notion of a spinal cord that is constitutively unfavorable to neuronal repair. Restoration of spinal cord circuitry in traumatic and degenerative diseases may be more realistic than previously thought, although major challenges remain, especially with respect to the establishment of neuromuscular connections.
When neural stem cells from human fetal spinal cord were grafted into the lumbar cord of normal or injured adult nude rats, substantial neuronal differentiation was found.
Editors' Summary
Every year, spinal cord injuries, many caused by road traffic accidents, paralyze about 11,000 people in the US. This paralysis occurs because the spinal cord is the main communication highway between the body and the brain. Information from the skin and other sensory organs is transmitted to the brain along the spinal cord by bundles of neurons, nervous system cells that transmit and receive messages. The brain then sends information back down the spinal cord to control movement, breathing, and other bodily functions. The bones of the spine normally protect the spinal cord but, if these are broken or dislocated, the spinal cord can be cut or compressed, which interrupts the information flow. Damage near the top of the spinal cord can paralyze the arms and legs (tetraplegia); damage lower down paralyzes the legs only (paraplegia). Spinal cord injuries also cause many other medical problems, including the loss of bowel and bladder control. Although the deleterious effects of spinal cord injuries can be minimized by quickly immobilizing the patient and using drugs to reduce inflammation, the damaged nerve fibers never regrow. Consequently, spinal cord injury is permanent.
Why Was This Study Done?
Scientists are currently searching for ways to reverse spinal cord damage. One potential approach is to replace the damaged neurons using neural stem cells (NSCs). These cells, which can be isolated from embryos and from some areas of the adult nervous system, are able to develop into all the specialized cells types of the nervous system. However, because most attempts to repair spinal cord damage with NSC transplants have been unsuccessful, many scientists believe that the environment of the spinal cord is unsuitable for nerve regeneration. In this study, the researchers have investigated what happens to NSCs derived from the spinal cord of a human fetus after transplantation into the spinal cord of adult rats.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers injected human NSCs that they had grown in dishes into the spinal cord of intact nude rats (animals that lack a functioning immune system and so do not destroy human cells) and into nude rats whose spinal cord had been damaged at the transplantation site. The survival and fate of the transplanted cells was assessed by staining thin slices of spinal cord with an antibody that binds to a human-specific protein and with antibodies that recognize proteins specific to NSCs, neurons, or other nervous system cells. The researchers report that the human cells survived well in the adult spinal cord of the injured and normal rats and migrated into the gray matter of the spinal cord (which contains neuronal cell bodies) and into the white matter (which contains the long extensions of nerve cells that carry nerve impulses). 75% and 60% of the human cells in the gray and white matter, respectively, contained a neuron-specific protein six months after transplantation but only 10% of those in the membrane surrounding the spinal cord became neurons; the rest developed into astrocytes (another nervous system cell type) or remained as stem cells. Finally, many of the human-derived neurons made the neurotransmitter GABA (one of the chemicals that transfers messages between neurons) and made contacts with host spinal cord neurons.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that human NSC grafts can, after all, develop into neurons (predominantly GABA-producing neurons) in normal and injured adult spinal cord and integrate into the existing spinal cord if the conditions are right. Although these animal experiments suggest that NSC transplants might help people with spinal injuries, they have some important limitations. For example, the spinal cord lesions used here are mild and unlike those seen in human patients. This and the use of nude rats might have reduced the scarring in the damaged spinal cord that is often a major barrier to nerve regeneration. Furthermore, the researchers did not test whether NSC transplants provide functional improvements after spinal cord injury. However, since other researchers have also recently reported that NSCs can grow and develop into neurons in injured adult spinal cord, these new results further strengthen hopes it might eventually be possible to use human NSCs to repair damaged spinal cords.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides information on spinal cord injury and current spinal cord research
Spinal Research (a UK charity) offers information on spinal cord injury and repair
The US National Spinal Cord Injury Association Web site contains factsheets on spinal cord injuries
MedlinePlus encyclopedia has pages on spinal cord trauma and interactive tutorials on spinal cord injury
The International Society for Stem Cell Research offers information on all sorts of stem cells including NSCs
The US National Human Neural Stem Cell Resource provides information on human NSCs, including the current US government's stance on stem cell research
PMCID: PMC1796906  PMID: 17298165
2.  Cellular Scaling Rules of Insectivore Brains 
Insectivores represent extremes in mammalian body size and brain size, retaining various “primitive” morphological characteristics, and some species of Insectivora are thought to share similarities with small-bodied ancestral eutherians. This raises the possibility that insectivore brains differ from other taxa, including rodents and primates, in cellular scaling properties. Here we examine the cellular scaling rules for insectivore brains and demonstrate that insectivore scaling rules overlap somewhat with those for rodents and primates such that the insectivore cortex shares scaling rules with rodents (increasing faster in size than in numbers of neurons), but the insectivore cerebellum shares scaling rules with primates (increasing isometrically). Brain structures pooled as “remaining areas” appear to scale similarly across all three mammalian orders with respect to numbers of neurons, and the numbers of non-neurons appear to scale similarly across all brain structures for all three orders. Therefore, common scaling rules exist, to different extents, between insectivore, rodent, and primate brain regions, and it is hypothesized that insectivores represent the common aspects of each order. The olfactory bulbs of insectivores, however, offer a noteworthy exception in that neuronal density increases linearly with increasing structure mass. This implies that the average neuronal cell size decreases with increasing olfactory bulb mass in order to accommodate greater neuronal density, and represents the first documentation of a brain structure gaining neurons at a greater rate than mass. This might allow insectivore brains to concentrate more neurons within the olfactory bulbs without a prohibitively large and metabolically costly increase in structure mass.
PMCID: PMC2713736  PMID: 19636383
allometry; brain size; comparative neuroanatomy; glia; neurons; evolution; olfactory bulb
3.  Infiltrating Blood-Derived Macrophages Are Vital Cells Playing an Anti-inflammatory Role in Recovery from Spinal Cord Injury in Mice 
PLoS Medicine  2009;6(7):e1000113.
Using a mouse model of spinal injury, Michal Schwartz and colleagues tested the effect of macrophages on the recovery process and demonstrate an important anti-inflammatory role for a subset of infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages that is dependent upon their expression of interleukin 10.
Although macrophages (MΦ) are known as essential players in wound healing, their contribution to recovery from spinal cord injury (SCI) is a subject of debate. The difficulties in distinguishing between different MΦ subpopulations at the lesion site have further contributed to the controversy and led to the common view of MΦ as functionally homogenous. Given the massive accumulation in the injured spinal cord of activated resident microglia, which are the native immune occupants of the central nervous system (CNS), the recruitment of additional infiltrating monocytes from the peripheral blood seems puzzling. A key question that remains is whether the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ contribute to repair, or represent an unavoidable detrimental response. The hypothesis of the current study is that a specific population of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ is functionally distinct from the inflammatory resident microglia and is essential for recovery from SCI.
Methods and Findings
We inflicted SCI in adult mice, and tested the effect of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ on the recovery process. Adoptive transfer experiments and bone marrow chimeras were used to functionally distinguish between the resident microglia and the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ. We followed the infiltration of the monocyte-derived MΦ to the injured site and characterized their spatial distribution and phenotype. Increasing the naïve monocyte pool by either adoptive transfer or CNS-specific vaccination resulted in a higher number of spontaneously recruited cells and improved recovery. Selective ablation of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ following SCI while sparing the resident microglia, using either antibody-mediated depletion or conditional ablation by diphtheria toxin, impaired recovery. Reconstitution of the peripheral blood with monocytes resistant to ablation restored the lost motor functions. Importantly, the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ displayed a local anti-inflammatory beneficial role, which was critically dependent upon their expression of interleukin 10.
The results of this study attribute a novel anti-inflammatory role to a unique subset of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ in SCI recovery, which cannot be provided by the activated resident microglia. According to our results, limited recovery following SCI can be attributed in part to the inadequate, untimely, spontaneous recruitment of monocytes. This process is amenable to boosting either by active vaccination with a myelin-derived altered peptide ligand, which indicates involvement of adaptive immunity in monocyte recruitment, or by augmenting the naïve monocyte pool in the peripheral blood. Thus, our study sheds new light on the long-held debate regarding the contribution of MΦ to recovery from CNS injuries, and has potentially far-reaching therapeutic implications.
Please see later in the article for Editors' Summary
Editors' Summary
Every year, spinal cord injuries paralyze about 11,000 people in the US. The spinal cord, which contains bundles of nervous system cells called neurons, is the communication highway between the brain and the body. Messages from the brain travel down the spinal cord to control movement, breathing and other bodily functions; messages from the skin and other sensory organs travel up the spinal cord to keep the brain informed about the body. The bones of the spine normally protect the spinal cord but, if these are broken or displaced, the spinal cord can be cut or compressed, which interrupts the information flow. Damage near the top of the spinal cord paralyzes the arms and legs (tetraplegia); damage lower down paralyzes the legs only (paraplegia). Spinal cord injuries also cause other medical problems, including the loss of bladder and bowel control. Currently, there is no effective treatment for spinal cord injuries, which usually cause permanent disability because the damaged nerve fibers rarely regrow.
Why Was This Study Done?
After a spinal cord injury, immune system cells called macrophages accumulate at the injury site. Some of these macrophages—so-called monocyte-derived macrophages—come into (infiltrate) the spinal cord from the blood in response to the injury, whereas others—microglia—are always in the nervous system. Although macrophages are essential for wound healing in other parts of the body, it is unclear whether they have good or bad effects in the spinal cord. Many experts believe that immune system cells hinder healing in the spinal cord and should be suppressed or eliminated, but other scientists claim that macrophages secrete factors that stimulate nerve regrowth. Furthermore, although some macrophages elsewhere in the body have proinflammatory (potentially deleterious) effects, others have anti-inflammatory (beneficial) effects. So do the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages and the resident microglia (which are proinflammatory) have different functions at spinal cord injury sites? In this study, the researchers try to answer this important question.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers bruised a small section of the spinal cord of adult mice and then investigated the effect of infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages on the recovery process. Monocyte-derived macrophages and microglia cannot be distinguished using standard staining techniques so to study their behavior after spinal cord injury the researchers introduced labeled monocyte-derived macrophages into their experimental animals by using adoptive transfer (injection of genetically labeled monocytes into the animals) or by making bone marrow chimeras. In this second technique, the animals' monocyte-derived macrophages (but not their microglia) were killed by irradiating the animals before injection of genetically labeled bone marrow, the source of monocytes. Using these approaches, the researchers found that monocyte-derived macrophages collected at the margins of spinal cord injury sites whereas microglia accumulated throughout the sites. When the pool of monocyte-derived macrophages in the mice was increased by adoptive transfer or by using a technique called “CNS-specific vaccination,” more monocyte-derived macrophages infiltrated the injury site and the animals' physical recovery from injury improved. Conversely, removal of the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages from the injury site reduced the animals' physical recovery. Other experiments indicated that the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages have a beneficial, local anti-inflammatory effect that is dependent on their expression of interleukin-10 (an anti-inflammatory signaling molecule).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide new information about the contribution of monocyte-derived macrophages to spontaneous recovery from spinal cord injury, a contribution that has long been debated. In particular, the findings suggest that this subset of macrophages (but not the resident microglia) has a beneficial effect on spinal cord injuries that is mediated by their production of the anti-inflammatory molecule interleukin-10. The findings also show that the effect of these monocyte-derived macrophages can be boosted, at least in mice. Although results obtained in experiments done in animals do not always accurately reflect what happens in people, this new understanding of the different functions of microglia and infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages after injury to the spinal cord may eventually lead to the development of better treatments for spinal cord injuries.
Additional Information
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about spinal cord injuries (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides detailed information about spinal cord injury, including information on current research into the problem (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides an interactive tutorial on spinal cord injury and a list of links to additional information (in English and Spanish)
PMCID: PMC2707628  PMID: 19636355
4.  Regulation of Peripheral Inflammation by Spinal p38 MAP Kinase in Rats 
PLoS Medicine  2006;3(9):e338.
Somatic afferent input to the spinal cord from a peripheral inflammatory site can modulate the peripheral response. However, the intracellular signaling mechanisms in the spinal cord that regulate this linkage have not been defined. Previous studies suggest spinal cord p38 mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase and cytokines participate in nociceptive behavior. We therefore determined whether these pathways also regulate peripheral inflammation in rat adjuvant arthritis, which is a model of rheumatoid arthritis.
Methods and Findings
Selective blockade of spinal cord p38 MAP kinase by administering the p38 inhibitor SB203580 via intrathecal (IT) catheters in rats with adjuvant arthritis markedly suppressed paw swelling, inhibited synovial inflammation, and decreased radiographic evidence of joint destruction. The same dose of SB203580 delivered systemically had no effect, indicating that the effect was mediated by local concentrations in the neural compartment. Evaluation of articular gene expression by quantitative real-time PCR showed that spinal p38 inhibition markedly decreased synovial interleukin-1 and −6 and matrix metalloproteinase (MMP3) gene expression. Activation of p38 required tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) in the nervous system because IT etanercept (a TNF inhibitor) given during adjuvant arthritis blocked spinal p38 phosphorylation and reduced clinical signs of adjuvant arthritis.
These data suggest that peripheral inflammation is sensed by the central nervous system (CNS), which subsequently activates stress-induced kinases in the spinal cord via a TNFα-dependent mechanism. Intracellular p38 MAP kinase signaling processes this information and profoundly modulates somatic inflammatory responses. Characterization of this mechanism could have clinical and basic research implications by supporting development of new treatments for arthritis and clarifying how the CNS regulates peripheral immune responses.
Inhibition of p38 MAP kinase in the CNS reduces peripheral inflammation and joint destruction in arthritic rats.
Editors' Summary
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease marked by chronic inflammation, leading to joint pain and destruction. Pain and inflammation in the joints as well as other locations in the body (i.e., the “periphery”) are constantly monitored by the central nervous system (i.e., the brain and spinal cord). Scientists have long suspected that the central nervous system (CNS) can regulate inflammation and immune responses, but little is known about how the CNS does this. One potential player is a protein called p38 that is involved in a number of cellular processes critical to the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Several substances that block the action of p38 are effective in animal models of arthritis and are currently being tested in clinical trials in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Originally, p38 was considered as a drug target that should mainly be blocked in the joints. But recent work has shown that pain in the periphery can lead to activation of p38 in the spinal cord, and that blocking p38 in the spinal cord might reduce peripheral pain.
Why Was This Study Done?
Based on the observation that p38 is activated in the CNS in response to peripheral pain, the researchers who did this study wondered whether it might be involved in the interaction between inflammation in the joints and the CNS.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They induced inflammation in the joints of rats and then looked for responses in the spinal cord. They found that p38 was indeed activated in the spinal cord of these rats. This activation depended on another protein, called TNFα, which is another major regulator of inflammation. The scientists then blocked either p38 or the TNFα with drugs directly delivered to the spinal cord of the arthritic rats, they could substantially reduce inflammation, arthritis, and destruction of the joints, compared with rats that had undergone the same treatment but received no active drug. Treatment of arthritic rats with the same amount of drugs given directly under the skin (this is called “systemic treatment”) did not have any effect on the joints.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Blocking p38 and TNFα by giving drugs systemically is known to have beneficial effects in animal models and human patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, the drugs tested in patients to date also have side effects. Given that much lower doses were needed to achieve beneficial effects in the rats when the drugs were administered directly into the spinal cord, it is possible that spinal cord administration might reduce the side effects (and possibly the costs) of the drugs without compromising the benefits to the patients. If future studies confirm that the action of these drugs on the CNS is essential to achieve a response even when administered as a systemic treatment, designing drugs that get into the CNS easier might improve the effectiveness and/or make it possible to use lower doses systemically.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
MedlinePlus entry on rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis pages from the US National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Rheumatoid Arthritis fact sheet from the American College of Rheumatology Description
Wikipedia entry on rheumatoid arthritis (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
PMCID: PMC1560929  PMID: 16953659
5.  Gorilla and Orangutan Brains Conform to the Primate Cellular Scaling Rules: Implications for Human Evolution 
Brain, Behavior and Evolution  2011;77(1):33-44.
Gorillas and orangutans are primates at least as large as humans, but their brains amount to about one third of the size of the human brain. This discrepancy has been used as evidence that the human brain is about 3 times larger than it should be for a primate species of its body size. In contrast to the view that the human brain is special in its size, we have suggested that it is the great apes that might have evolved bodies that are unusually large, on the basis of our recent finding that the cellular composition of the human brain matches that expected for a primate brain of its size, making the human brain a linearly scaled-up primate brain in its number of cells. To investigate whether the brain of great apes also conforms to the primate cellular scaling rules identified previously, we determine the numbers of neuronal and other cells that compose the orangutan and gorilla cerebella, use these numbers to calculate the size of the brain and of the cerebral cortex expected for these species, and show that these match the sizes described in the literature. Our results suggest that the brains of great apes also scale linearly in their numbers of neurons like other primate brains, including humans. The conformity of great apes and humans to the linear cellular scaling rules that apply to other primates that diverged earlier in primate evolution indicates that prehistoric Homo species as well as other hominins must have had brains that conformed to the same scaling rules, irrespective of their body size. We then used those scaling rules and published estimated brain volumes for various hominin species to predict the numbers of neurons that composed their brains. We predict that Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis had brains with approximately 80 billion neurons, within the range of variation found in modern Homo sapiens. We propose that while the cellular scaling rules that apply to the primate brain have remained stable in hominin evolution (since they apply to simians, great apes and modern humans alike), the Colobinae and Pongidae lineages favored marked increases in body size rather than brain size from the common ancestor with the Homo lineage, while the Homo lineage seems to have favored a large brain instead of a large body, possibly due to the metabolic limitations to having both.
PMCID: PMC3064932  PMID: 21228547
Allometry; Brain size; Great apes; Human; Evolution, human; Neurons, number
6.  Two Faces of Chondroitin Sulfate Proteoglycan in Spinal Cord Repair: A Role in Microglia/Macrophage Activation 
PLoS Medicine  2008;5(8):e171.
Chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan (CSPG) is a major component of the glial scar. It is considered to be a major obstacle for central nervous system (CNS) recovery after injury, especially in light of its well-known activity in limiting axonal growth. Therefore, its degradation has become a key therapeutic goal in the field of CNS regeneration. Yet, the abundant de novo synthesis of CSPG in response to CNS injury is puzzling. This apparent dichotomy led us to hypothesize that CSPG plays a beneficial role in the repair process, which might have been previously overlooked because of nonoptimal regulation of its levels. This hypothesis is tested in the present study.
Methods and Findings
We inflicted spinal cord injury in adult mice and examined the effects of CSPG on the recovery process. We used xyloside to inhibit CSPG formation at different time points after the injury and analyzed the phenotype acquired by the microglia/macrophages in the lesion site. To distinguish between the resident microglia and infiltrating monocytes, we used chimeric mice whose bone marrow-derived myeloid cells expressed GFP. We found that CSPG plays a key role during the acute recovery stage after spinal cord injury in mice. Inhibition of CSPG synthesis immediately after injury impaired functional motor recovery and increased tissue loss. Using the chimeric mice we found that the immediate inhibition of CSPG production caused a dramatic effect on the spatial organization of the infiltrating myeloid cells around the lesion site, decreased insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) production by microglia/macrophages, and increased tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) levels. In contrast, delayed inhibition, allowing CSPG synthesis during the first 2 d following injury, with subsequent inhibition, improved recovery. Using in vitro studies, we showed that CSPG directly activated microglia/macrophages via the CD44 receptor and modulated neurotrophic factor secretion by these cells.
Our results show that CSPG plays a pivotal role in the repair of injured spinal cord and in the recovery of motor function during the acute phase after the injury; CSPG spatially and temporally controls activity of infiltrating blood-borne monocytes and resident microglia. The distinction made in this study between the beneficial role of CSPG during the acute stage and its deleterious effect at later stages emphasizes the need to retain the endogenous potential of this molecule in repair by controlling its levels at different stages of post-injury repair.
Michal Schwartz and colleagues describe the role of chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan in the repair of injured tissue and in the recovery of motor function during the acute phase after spinal cord injury.
Editors' Summary
Every year, spinal cord injuries paralyze about 10,000 people in the United States. The spinal cord, which contains bundles of nervous system cells called neurons, is the communication superhighway between the brain and the body. Messages from the brain travel down the spinal cord to control movement, breathing, and other bodily functions; messages from the skin and other sensory organs travel up the spinal cord to keep the brain informed about the body. All these messages are transmitted along axons, long extensions on the neurons. The spinal cord is protected by the bones of the spine but if these are displaced or broken, the axons can be compressed or cut, which interrupts the information flow. Damage near the top of the spinal cord paralyzes the arms and legs (tetraplegia); damage lower down paralyzes the legs only (paraplegia). Spinal cord injuries also cause other medical problems, including the loss of bowel and bladder control. Currently there is no effective treatment for spinal cord injuries. Treatment with drugs to reduce inflammation has, at best, only modest effects. Moreover, because damaged axons rarely regrow, most spinal cord injuries are permanent.
Why Was This Study Done?
One barrier to recovery after a spinal cord injury seems to be an inappropriate immune response to the injury. After an injury, microglia (immune system cells that live in the nervous system), and macrophages (blood-borne immune system cells that infiltrate the injury) become activated. Microglia/macrophage activation can be either beneficial (the cells make IGF-1, a protein that stimulates axon growth) or destructive (the cells make TNF-α, a protein that kills neurons), so studies of microglia/macrophage activation might suggest ways to treat spinal cord injuries. Another possible barrier to recovery is “chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan” (CSPG). This is a major component of the scar tissue (the “glial scar”) that forms around spinal cord injuries. CSPG limits axon regrowth, so attempts have been made to improve spinal cord repair by removing CSPG. But if CSPG prevents spinal cord repair, why is so much of it made immediately after an injury? In this study, the researchers investigate this paradox by asking whether CSPG made in the right place and in the right amount might have a beneficial role in spinal cord repair that has been overlooked.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers bruised a small section of the spinal cord of mice to cause hind limb paralysis, and then monitored the recovery of movement in these animals. They also examined the injured tissue microscopically, looked for microglia and infiltrating macrophages at the injury site, and measured the production of IGF-1 and TNF-α by these cells. Inhibition of CSPG synthesis immediately after injury impaired the functional recovery of the mice and increased tissue loss at the injury site. It also altered the spatial organization of infiltrating macrophages at the injury site, reduced IGF-1 production by these microglia/macrophages, and increased TNF-α levels. In contrast, when CSPG synthesis was not inhibited until two days after the injury, the mice recovered well from spinal cord injury. Furthermore, the interaction of CSPG with a cell-surface protein called CD44 activated microglia/macrophages growing in dishes and increased their production of IGF-1 but not of molecules that kill neurons.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that, immediately after a spinal cord injury, CSPG is needed for the repair of injured neurons and the recovery of movement, but that later on the presence of CSPG hinders repair. The findings also indicate that CSPG has these effects, at least in part, because it regulates the activity and localization of microglia and macrophages at the injury site and thus modulates local immune responses to the damage. Results obtained from experiments done in animals do not always accurately reflect the situation in people, so these findings need to be confirmed in patients with spinal cord injuries. However, they suggest that the effect of CSPG on spinal cord repair is not an inappropriate response to the injury, as is widely believed. Consequently, careful manipulation of CSPG levels might improve outcomes for people with spinal cord injuries.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about spinal cord injuries; MedlinePlus provides an interactive tutorial and a list of links to additional information about spinal cord injuries (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke also provides information about spinal cord injury (in English and Spanish)
Wikipedia has a page on glial scars (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
PMCID: PMC2517615  PMID: 18715114
7.  MRI investigation of the sensorimotor cortex and the corticospinal tract after acute spinal cord injury: a prospective longitudinal study 
Lancet Neurology  2013;12(9):873-881.
In patients with chronic spinal cord injury, imaging of the spinal cord and brain above the level of the lesion provides evidence of neural degeneration; however, the spatial and temporal patterns of progression and their relation to clinical outcomes are uncertain. New interventions targeting acute spinal cord injury have entered clinical trials but neuroimaging outcomes as responsive markers of treatment have yet to be established. We aimed to use MRI to assess neuronal degeneration above the level of the lesion after acute spinal cord injury.
In our prospective longitudinal study, we enrolled patients with acute traumatic spinal cord injury and healthy controls. We assessed patients clinically and by MRI at baseline, 2 months, 6 months, and 12 months, and controls by MRI at the same timepoints. We assessed atrophy in white matter in the cranial corticospinal tracts and grey matter in sensorimotor cortices by tensor-based analyses of T1-weighted MRI data. We used cross-sectional spinal cord area measurements to assess atrophy at cervical level C2/C3. We used myelin-sensitive magnetisation transfer (MT) and longitudinal relaxation rate (R1) maps to assess microstructural changes associated with myelin. We also assessed associations between MRI parameters and clinical improvement. All analyses of brain scans done with statistical parametric mapping were corrected for family-wise error.
Between Sept 17, 2010, and Dec 31, 2012, we recruited 13 patients and 18 controls. In the 12 months from baseline, patients recovered by a mean of 5·27 points per log month (95% CI 1·91–8·63) on the international standards for the neurological classification of spinal cord injury (ISNCSCI) motor score (p=0·002) and by 10·93 points per log month (6·20–15·66) on the spinal cord independence measure (SCIM) score (p<0·0001). Compared with controls, patients showed a rapid decline in cross-sectional spinal cord area (patients declined by 0·46 mm per month compared with a stable cord area in controls; p<0·0001). Patients had faster rates than controls of volume decline of white matter in the cranial corticospinal tracts at the level of the internal capsule (right Z score 5·21, p=0·0081; left Z score 4·12, p=0·0004) and right cerebral peduncle (Z score 3·89, p=0·0302) and of grey matter in the left primary motor cortex (Z score 4·23, p=0·041). Volume changes were paralleled by significant reductions of MT and R1 in the same areas and beyond. Improvements in SCIM scores at 12 months were associated with a reduced loss in cross-sectional spinal cord area over 12 months (Pearson's correlation 0·77, p=0·004) and reduced white matter volume of the corticospinal tracts at the level of the right internal capsule (Z score 4·30, p=0·0021), the left internal capsule (Z score 4·27, p=0·0278), and left cerebral peduncle (Z score 4·05, p=0·0316). Improvements in ISNCSCI motor scores were associated with less white matter volume change encompassing the corticospinal tract at the level of the right internal capsule (Z score 4·01, p<0·0001).
Extensive upstream atrophic and microstructural changes of corticospinal axons and sensorimotor cortical areas occur in the first months after spinal cord injury, with faster degenerative changes relating to poorer recovery. Structural volumetric and microstructural MRI protocols remote from the site of spinal cord injury could serve as neuroimaging biomarkers in acute spinal cord injury.
SRH Holding, Swiss National Science Foundation, Clinical Research Priority Program “NeuroRehab” University of Zurich, Wellcome Trust.
PMCID: PMC3744750  PMID: 23827394
8.  Kinase/phosphatase overexpression reveals pathways regulating hippocampal neuron morphology 
Kinases and phosphatases that regulate neurite number versus branching versus extension are weakly correlated.The kinase family that most strongly enhances neurite growth is a family of non-protein kinases; sugar kinases related to NADK.Pathway analysis revealed that genes in several cancer pathways were highly active in enhancing neurite growth.
In neural development, neuronal precursors differentiate, migrate, extend long axons and dendrites, and finally establish connections with their targets. Clinical conditions such as spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, and Alzheimer's disease are often associated with a loss of axon and/or dendrite connectivity and treatment strategies would be enhanced by new therapies targeting cell intrinsic mechanisms of axon elongation and regeneration.
Phosphorylation controls most cellular processes, including the cell cycle, proliferation, metabolism, and apoptosis. Neuronal differentiation, including axon formation and elongation, is also regulated by a wide range of kinases and phosphatases. For example, the non-receptor tyrosine kinase Src is required for cell adhesion molecule-dependent neurite outgrowth. In addition to individual kinases and phosphatases, signaling pathways like the MAPK, growth factor signaling, PIP3, cytoskeletal, and calcium-dependent pathways have been shown to impinge on or control neuronal process development. Recent results have implicated GSK3 and PTEN as therapeutically relevant targets in axonal regeneration after injury. However, these and other experiments have studied only a small fraction of the total kinases and phosphatases in the genome. Because of recent advances in genomic knowledge, large-scale cDNA production, and high-throughput phenotypic analysis, it is now possible to take a more comprehensive approach to understanding the functions of kinases and phosphatases in neurons.
We performed a large, unbiased set of experiments to answer the question ‘what effect does the overexpression of genes encoding kinases, phosphatases, and related proteins have on neuronal morphology?' We used ‘high-content analysis' to obtain detailed results about the specific phenotypes of neurons. We studied embryonic rat hippocampal neurons because of their stereotypical development in vitro (Dotti et al, 1988) and their widespread use in studies of neuronal differentiation and signaling. We transfected over 700 clones encoding kinases and phosphatases into hippocampal neurons and analyzed the resulting changes in neuronal morphology.
Many known genes, including PP1a, ERK1, ErbB2, atypical PKC, Calcineurin, CaMK2, IGF1R, FGFR, GSK3, and PIK3 were observed to have significant effects on neurite outgrowth in our system, consistent with earlier findings in the literature.
We obtained quantitative data for many cellular and neuronal morphological parameters from each neuron imaged. These included nuclear morphology (nuclear area and Hoechst dye intensity), soma morphology (tubulin intensity, area, and shape), and numerous parameters of neurite morphology (e.g. tubulin intensity along the neurites, number of primary neurites, neurite length, number of branches, distance from the cell body to the branches, number of crossing points, width and area of the neurites, and longest neurite; Supplementary Figure 1). Other parameters were reported on a ‘per well' basis, including the percentage of transfected neurons in a condition, as well as the percentage of neurons initiating neurite growth. Data for each treatment were normalized to a control (pSport CAT) within the same experiment, then aggregated across replicate experiments.
Correlations among the 19 normalized parameters were analyzed for neurons transfected with all kinase and phosphatase clones (Figure 2). On the basis of this analysis, the primary variables that define the neurite morphology are primary neurite count, neurite average length, and average branches. Interestingly, primary neurite count was not well correlated with neurite length or branching. The Pearson correlation coefficient (r2) between the number of primary neurites and the average length of the neurites was 0.3, and between the number of primary neurites and average branching was 0.2. In contrast, the correlation coefficient of average branching with neurite average length was 0.7. The most likely explanation is that signaling mechanisms underlying the neurite number determination are different than those controlling length/branching of the neurites.
Related proteins are often involved in similar neuronal functions. For example, families of receptor protein tyrosine phosphatases are involved in motor axon extension and guidance in both Drosophila and in vertebrates, and a large family of Eph receptor tyrosine kinases regulates guidance of retinotectal projections, motor axons, and axons in the corpus callosum. We therefore asked whether families of related genes produced similar phenotypes when overexpressed in hippocampal neurons. Our set of genes covered 40% of the known protein kinases, and many of the non-protein kinases and phosphatases.
Gene families commonly exhibit redundant function. Redundant gene function has often been identified when two or more knockouts are required to produce a phenotype. Our technique allowed us to measure whether different members of gene families had similar (potentially redundant) or distinct effects on neuronal phenotype.
To determine whether groups of related genes affect neuronal morphology in similar ways, we used sequence alignment information to construct gene clusters (Figure 6). Genes were clustered at nine different thresholds of similarity (called ‘tiers'). The functional effect for a particular parameter was then averaged within each cluster of a given tier, and statistics were performed to determine the significance of the effect. We analyzed the results for three key neurite parameters (average neurite length, primary neurite count, and average branching). Genes that perturbed each of these phenotypes are grouped in Figure 6. Eight families, most with only a few genes, produced significant changes for one or two parameters. A diverse family of non-protein kinases had a positive effect on neurite outgrowth in three of the four parameters analyzed. This family of kinases consisted of a variety of enzymes, mostly sugar and lipid kinases. A similar analysis was performed using pathway cluster analysis with pathways from the KEGG database, rather than sequence homology. Interestingly, pathways involved in cancer cell proliferation potentiated neurite extension and branching.
Our studies have identified a large number of kinases and phosphatases, as well as structurally and functionally defined families of these proteins, that affect neuronal process formation in specific ways. We have provided an analytical methodology and new tools to analyze functional data, and have implicated genes with novel functions in neuronal development. Our studies are an important step towards the goal of a molecular description of the intrinsic control of axodendritic growth.
Development and regeneration of the nervous system requires the precise formation of axons and dendrites. Kinases and phosphatases are pervasive regulators of cellular function and have been implicated in controlling axodendritic development and regeneration. We undertook a gain-of-function analysis to determine the functions of kinases and phosphatases in the regulation of neuron morphology. Over 300 kinases and 124 esterases and phosphatases were studied by high-content analysis of rat hippocampal neurons. Proteins previously implicated in neurite growth, such as ERK1, GSK3, EphA8, FGFR, PI3K, PKC, p38, and PP1a, were confirmed to have effects in our functional assays. We also identified novel positive and negative neurite growth regulators. These include neuronal-developmentally regulated kinases such as the activin receptor, interferon regulatory factor 6 (IRF6) and neural leucine-rich repeat 1 (LRRN1). The protein kinase N2 (PKN2) and choline kinase α (CHKA) kinases, and the phosphatases PPEF2 and SMPD1, have little or no established functions in neuronal function, but were sufficient to promote neurite growth. In addition, pathway analysis revealed that members of signaling pathways involved in cancer progression and axis formation enhanced neurite outgrowth, whereas cytokine-related pathways significantly inhibited neurite formation.
PMCID: PMC2925531  PMID: 20664637
bioinformatics; development; functional genomics; metabolic and regulatory networks; neuroscience
9.  Secretagogin is expressed in sensory CGRP neurons and in spinal cord of mouse and complements other calcium-binding proteins, with a note on rat and human 
Molecular Pain  2012;8:80.
Secretagogin (Scgn), a member of the EF-hand calcium-binding protein (CaBP) superfamily, has recently been found in subsets of developing and adult neurons. Here, we have analyzed the expression of Scgn in dorsal root ganglia (DRGs) and trigeminal ganglia (TGs), and in spinal cord of mouse at the mRNA and protein levels, and in comparison to the well-known CaBPs, calbindin D-28k, parvalbumin and calretinin. Rat DRGs, TGs and spinal cord, as well as human DRGs and spinal cord were used to reveal phylogenetic variations.
We found Scgn mRNA expressed in mouse and human DRGs and in mouse ventral spinal cord. Our immunohistochemical data showed a complementary distribution of Scgn and the three CaBPs in mouse DRG neurons and spinal cord. Scgn was expressed in ~7% of all mouse DRG neuron profiles, mainly small ones and almost exclusively co-localized with calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP). This co-localization was also seen in human, but not in rat DRGs. Scgn could be detected in the mouse sciatic nerve and accumulated proximal to its constriction. In mouse spinal cord, Scgn-positive neuronal cell bodies and fibers were found in gray matter, especially in the dorsal horn, with particularly high concentrations of fibers in the superficial laminae, as well as in cell bodies in inner lamina II and in some other laminae. A dense Scgn-positive fiber network and some small cell bodies were also found in the superficial dorsal horn of humans. In the ventral horn, a small number of neurons were Scgn-positive in mouse but not rat, confirming mRNA distribution. Both in mouse and rat, a subset of TG neurons contained Scgn. Dorsal rhizotomy strongly reduced Scgn fiber staining in the dorsal horn. Peripheral axotomy did not clearly affect Scgn expression in DRGs, dorsal horn or ventral horn neurons in mouse.
Scgn is a CaBP expressed in a subpopulation of nociceptive DRG neurons and their processes in the dorsal horn of mouse, human and rat, the former two co-expressing CGRP, as well as in dorsal horn neurons in all three species. Functional implications of these findings include the cellular refinement of sensory information, in particular during the processing of pain.
PMCID: PMC3560279  PMID: 23102406
Calbindin D-28k; Calretinin; Dorsal horn; Dorsal root ganglion; Nerve injury; Parvalbumin; Trigeminal ganglion
10.  Donor-Derived Brain Tumor Following Neural Stem Cell Transplantation in an Ataxia Telangiectasia Patient 
PLoS Medicine  2009;6(2):e1000029.
Neural stem cells are currently being investigated as potential therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, stroke, and trauma. However, concerns have been raised over the safety of this experimental therapeutic approach, including, for example, whether there is the potential for tumors to develop from transplanted stem cells.
Methods and Findings
A boy with ataxia telangiectasia (AT) was treated with intracerebellar and intrathecal injection of human fetal neural stem cells. Four years after the first treatment he was diagnosed with a multifocal brain tumor. The biopsied tumor was diagnosed as a glioneuronal neoplasm. We compared the tumor cells and the patient's peripheral blood cells by fluorescent in situ hybridization using X and Y chromosome probes, by PCR for the amelogenin gene X- and Y-specific alleles, by MassArray for the ATM patient specific mutation and for several SNPs, by PCR for polymorphic microsatellites, and by human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing. Molecular and cytogenetic studies showed that the tumor was of nonhost origin suggesting it was derived from the transplanted neural stem cells. Microsatellite and HLA analysis demonstrated that the tumor is derived from at least two donors.
This is the first report of a human brain tumor complicating neural stem cell therapy. The findings here suggest that neuronal stem/progenitor cells may be involved in gliomagenesis and provide the first example of a donor-derived brain tumor. Further work is urgently needed to assess the safety of these therapies.
Gideon Rechavi and colleagues describe the case of a boy with ataxia telangiectasia who developed a brain tumor after neural stem cell therapy.
Editors' Summary
Most of the cells in the human body are highly specialized (“differentiated”). The brain and the spinal cord, for example, contain two main cell types—neurons, which transmit electrical signals to and from the brain, and glial cells, which support and protect the neurons. If these essential neural cells become damaged or diseased, the body cannot replace them. Scientists think, however, that it might be possible to use “neural stem cell” transplants to replace the neural cells that are lost in neurodegenerative diseases (for example, Parkinson's disease) or damaged by strokes or trauma. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that replicate indefinitely and that have the potential to develop into many different specialized cells. Pluripotent stem cells (which are able to develop into any kind of specialized cell) can be isolated from early human embryos; “multipotent” stem cells (which develop into only a few cell types) can be isolated from many differentiated tissues, including the brain. Human fetuses (unborn offspring from the end of the 8th week after conception) are thought to be a particularly good source of neural stem cells because many new neural cells are made in fetal brains.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although stem cell transplantation might provide treatments for many debilitating diseases, some concerns have been raised over its safety. In particular, some experts fear that tumors might sometimes develop from transplanted stem cells. Tumor cells actually behave very much like stem cells—they divide indefinitely and they tend to be undifferentiated. It is very important, therefore, that every patient who receives a human stem cell transplant is carefully followed up to see whether any tumors develop as a result. In this study, the researchers describe a case in which multiple, slow-growing, donor-derived brain tumors formed in a patient after the transplantation of human fetal neural stem cells.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Beginning in 2001, fetal neural stem cells were injected several times into the brain and the fluid surrounding it of a boy with ataxia telangiectasia at a Moscow hospital. Ataxia telangiectasia, a rare disorder characterized by degeneration of the brain region that controls movement and speech, occurs when both copies of the ATM gene (human cells contain two copies of most genes) contain a genetic change that stops the production of functional ATM protein. In 2005, the boy had a magnetic resonance imaging scan at the Sheba Medical Center (Israel) because of recurrent headaches. The scan revealed abnormal growths in his brain and spinal cord. In September 2006, when the boy was 14, the spinal cord growth was surgically removed. This growth has never reappeared but the mass in the boy's brain has continued to grow slowly. The material removed from the boy's spinal cord contained both neurons and glial cells, the researchers report, and resembled a glioneuronal tumor. In addition, it contained both XX (female) and XY (male) cells and the tumor cells had two normal copies of the ATM gene. Finally, a technique called HLA typing showed that the tumor contained cells from at least two donors.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the growth in the patient's spinal cord was donor-cell derived and contained cells from two or more donors, at least one of whom was female. Although the growth in the patient's brain has not been examined, the multiple masses seen in this patient probably arose independently from transplanted cells injected at different sites, suggest the researchers. Importantly, the slow growth of the tumors and the well-differentiated appearance of the cells removed from the patient suggest that the tumors are relatively benign. Donor-derived cells might have been able to establish tumors in this particular patient because people with ataxia telangiectasia often have an impaired immune system and the immune system normally helps to reject tumor cells. Nevertheless, this first example of a donor-derived brain tumor developing after fetal neural cell transplantation is worrying and suggests that further work should be done to assess the safety of this therapy.
Additional Information.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at
The US National Institutes of Health provides information about stem cells and their potential uses
The International Society for Stem Cell Research also provides information about all aspects of stem cells for the public and for professionals
The US National Human Neural Stem Cell Resource provides specific information about neural stem cells for the public and for scientists
The US National Cancer Institutes has a fact sheet about ataxia telangiectasia
PMCID: PMC2642879  PMID: 19226183
11.  GDNF Secreting Human Neural Progenitor Cells Protect Dying Motor Neurons, but Not Their Projection to Muscle, in a Rat Model of Familial ALS 
PLoS ONE  2007;2(8):e689.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease characterized by rapid loss of muscle control and eventual paralysis due to the death of large motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Growth factors such as glial cell line derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) are known to protect motor neurons from damage in a range of models. However, penetrance through the blood brain barrier and delivery to the spinal cord remains a serious challenge. Although there may be a primary dysfunction in the motor neuron itself, there is also increasing evidence that excitotoxicity due to glial dysfunction plays a crucial role in disease progression. Clearly it would be of great interest if wild type glial cells could ameliorate motor neuron loss in these models, perhaps in combination with the release of growth factors such as GDNF.
Methodology/Principal Findings
Human neural progenitor cells can be expanded in culture for long periods and survive transplantation into the adult rodent central nervous system, in some cases making large numbers of GFAP positive astrocytes. They can also be genetically modified to release GDNF (hNPCGDNF) and thus act as long-term ‘mini pumps’ in specific regions of the rodent and primate brain. In the current study we genetically modified human neural stem cells to release GDNF and transplanted them into the spinal cord of rats over-expressing mutant SOD1 (SOD1G93A). Following unilateral transplantation into the spinal cord of SOD1G93A rats there was robust cellular migration into degenerating areas, efficient delivery of GDNF and remarkable preservation of motor neurons at early and end stages of the disease within chimeric regions. The progenitors retained immature markers, and those not secreting GDNF had no effect on motor neuron survival. Interestingly, this robust motor neuron survival was not accompanied by continued innervation of muscle end plates and thus resulted in no improvement in ipsilateral limb use.
The potential to maintain dying motor neurons by delivering GDNF using neural progenitor cells represents a novel and powerful treatment strategy for ALS. While this approach represents a unique way to prevent motor neuron loss, our data also suggest that additional strategies may also be required for maintenance of neuromuscular connections and full functional recovery. However, simply maintaining motor neurons in patients would be the first step of a therapeutic advance for this devastating and incurable disease, while future strategies focus on the maintenance of the neuromuscular junction.
PMCID: PMC1925150  PMID: 17668067
12.  Cellular Scaling Rules for the Brains of an Extended Number of Primate Species 
Brain, Behavior and Evolution  2010;76(1):32-44.
What are the rules relating the size of the brain and its structures to the number of cells that compose them and their average sizes? We have shown previously that the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and the remaining brain structures increase in size as a linear function of their numbers of neurons and non-neuronal cells across 6 species of primates. Here we describe that the cellular composition of the same brain structures of 5 other primate species, as well as humans, conform to the scaling rules identified previously, and that the updated power functions for the extended sample are similar to those determined earlier. Accounting for phylogenetic relatedness in the combined dataset does not affect the scaling slopes that apply to the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, but alters the slope for the remaining brain structures to a value that is similar to that observed in rodents, which raises the possibility that the neuronal scaling rules for these structures are shared among rodents and primates. The conformity of the new set of primate species to the previous rules strongly suggests that the cellular scaling rules we have identified apply to primates in general, including humans, and not only to particular subgroups of primate species. In contrast, the allometric rules relating body and brain size are highly sensitive to the particular species sampled, suggesting that brain size is neither determined by body size nor together with it, but is rather only loosely correlated with body size.
PMCID: PMC2980814  PMID: 20926854
Allometry; Brain size; Evolution; Glia, number; Neurons, number; Primates
13.  Resting state functional connectivity in the human spinal cord 
eLife  2014;3:e02812.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging using blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) contrast is well established as one of the most powerful methods for mapping human brain function. Numerous studies have measured how low-frequency BOLD signal fluctuations from the brain are correlated between voxels in a resting state, and have exploited these signals to infer functional connectivity within specific neural circuits. However, to date there have been no previous substantiated reports of resting state correlations in the spinal cord. In a cohort of healthy volunteers, we observed robust functional connectivity between left and right ventral (motor) horns, and between left and right dorsal (sensory) horns. Our results demonstrate that low-frequency BOLD fluctuations are inherent in the spinal cord as well as the brain, and by analogy to cortical circuits, we hypothesize that these correlations may offer insight into the execution and maintenance of sensory and motor functions both locally and within the cerebrum.
eLife digest
Brain imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can provide us with a picture of what the brain is doing when a person is carrying out a specific task. For example, an fMRI scan recorded whilst someone is reading is likely to show activity in regions in the left hemisphere of the brain that are known to be involved in language comprehension. fMRI can also be used to measure patterns of neuronal activity when someone is awake but not engaged in a specific task. This approach, known as resting state fMRI, can be used to examine which regions of the resting brain are active at the same time. Researchers are interested in these patterns of brain activity because they reflect neural circuits that work together to produce different functions and behaviors.
Over 4000 papers have used resting state fMRI to study the human brain. However, to date there has been no conclusive investigation of resting state activity in the spinal cord. This is largely because the spinal cord is much smaller than the brain, and most fMRI scanners are not sensitive enough to study it in detail. Consequently, little is known about intrinsic neural circuits in the resting spinal cord.
Now Barry et al. have used advances in fMRI technology to show that resting state functional connectivity does indeed exist in the spinal cord. Correlations were found in the resting levels of activity between spatially distinct areas of the cord, specifically between the ventral horns and between the dorsal horns. The ventral horns relay motor signals to the body, whilst the dorsal horns receive sensory signals from the body.
These findings also have clinical applications. Some patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries can recover near normal function, but the mechanisms responsible for this recovery are unclear because clinicians have not been able to probe neuronal connections in the spinal cord in a non-invasive manner. The work of Barry et al. should help with efforts to understand the neuronal changes that support recovery from spinal cord injury.
PMCID: PMC4120419  PMID: 25097248
fMRI; spinal cord; 7 Tesla; resting state; functional connectivity; human
14.  The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain  
The human brain has often been viewed as outstanding among mammalian brains: the most cognitively able, the largest-than-expected from body size, endowed with an overdeveloped cerebral cortex that represents over 80% of brain mass, and purportedly containing 100 billion neurons and 10× more glial cells. Such uniqueness was seemingly necessary to justify the superior cognitive abilities of humans over larger-brained mammals such as elephants and whales. However, our recent studies using a novel method to determine the cellular composition of the brain of humans and other primates as well as of rodents and insectivores show that, since different cellular scaling rules apply to the brains within these orders, brain size can no longer be considered a proxy for the number of neurons in the brain. These studies also showed that the human brain is not exceptional in its cellular composition, as it was found to contain as many neuronal and non-neuronal cells as would be expected of a primate brain of its size. Additionally, the so-called overdeveloped human cerebral cortex holds only 19% of all brain neurons, a fraction that is similar to that found in other mammals. In what regards absolute numbers of neurons, however, the human brain does have two advantages compared to other mammalian brains: compared to rodents, and probably to whales and elephants as well, it is built according to the very economical, space-saving scaling rules that apply to other primates; and, among economically built primate brains, it is the largest, hence containing the most neurons. These findings argue in favor of a view of cognitive abilities that is centered on absolute numbers of neurons, rather than on body size or encephalization, and call for a re-examination of several concepts related to the exceptionality of the human brain.
PMCID: PMC2776484  PMID: 19915731
brain scaling; number of neurons; human; encephalization
15.  A Role for the Cannabinoid 1 Receptor in Neuronal Differentiation of Adult Spinal Cord Progenitors in vitro is Revealed through Pharmacological Inhibition and Genetic Deletion 
In contrast to the adult brain, the adult spinal cord is a non-neurogenic environment. Understanding how to manipulate the spinal cord environment to promote the formation of new neurons is an attractive therapeutic strategy for spinal cord injury and disease. The cannabinoid 1 receptor (CB1R) has been implicated as a modulator of neural progenitor cell proliferation and fate specification in the brain; however, no evidence exists for modulation of adult spinal cord progenitor cells. Using adult rat spinal cord primary cultures, we demonstrated that CB1R antagonism with AM251 significantly decreased the number of Nestin(+) cells, and increased the number of βIII tubulin(+) and DCX(+) cells, indicative of neuronal differentiation. AM251’s effect was blocked by co-application of the CB1R agonists, WIN 55, 212-2, or ACEA. Consistent with our hypothesis, cultures, and spinal cord slices derived from CB1R knock-out (CB1−/−) mice had significantly higher levels of DCX(+) cells compared to those derived from wild type (CB1+/+) mice, indicative of enhanced neuronal differentiation in CB1−/− spinal cords. Moreover, AM251 promoted neuronal differentiation in CB1+/+, but not in CB1−/− cultures. Since CB1R modulates synaptic transmission, and synaptic transmission has been shown to influence progenitor cell fate, we evaluated whether AM251-induced neuronal differentiation was affected by chronic inactivity. Either the presence of the voltage-dependent sodium channel blocker tetrodotoxin (TTX), or the removal of mature neurons, inhibited the AM251-induced increase in DCX(+) cells. In summary, antagonism or absence of CB1R promotes neuronal differentiation in adult spinal cords, and this action appears to require TTX-sensitive neuronal activity. Our data suggest that the previously detected elevated levels of endocannabinoids in the injured adult spinal cord could contribute to the non-neurogenic environment and CB1R antagonists could potentially be used to enhance replacement of damaged neurons.
PMCID: PMC3265030  PMID: 22291615
CB1R; adult spinal cord cultures; neuronal differentiation
16.  Preoperative radiological and electrophysiological evaluation in 100 adolescent idiopathic scoliosis patients 
European Spine Journal  2003;12(5):501-506.
This is a prospective study of spinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electrophysiological recordings, and neurological examinations of 100 patients admitted for surgery for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS), which was conducted to assess the prevalence of structural and functional abnormalities within the spinal cord in patients with clinically normal neurologic condition. In all patients the clinical diagnosis and intact neurological condition was ascertained by a spinal orthopedic surgeon. Full-length spinal axis MRI studies (T1/T2 sequences) and somato-sensory evoked potentials of the tibial nerves (tSSEPs) were preoperatively assessed by independent evaluators blinded to the patients' medical histories. Structural spinal cord abnormalities were found in three of 100 AIS patients on MR imaging. In one patient a Chiari malformation type 1 with an accompanying syringomyelia was diagnosed, which required a suboccipital decompression. In the other two patients small thoracic syringomyelias were diagnosed. Abnormalities of spinal cord function were detected in 68% of the 100 patients: tSSEP latencies corrected for body height were increased in 56% of the patients; pathological differences between tSSEPs on the left and right sides were present in 17% (12% in combination with a prolongation of the latency). The findings of this study indicate that MRI and electrophysiological examinations are essential to assess spinal cord abnormalities that are clinically not detectable in AIS patients. Even in patients with intact neurologic condition and clinically typical right-curved thoracic scoliosis, the possibility of intraspinal pathologies should be ruled out by MRI. It is especially important to detect structural pathologies like syringomyelia and Chiari malformation before proceeding with scoliosis surgery, as these conditions are associated with a higher neurological risk during scoliosis surgery. The electrophysiological recordings made in the present study, with the high number of pathological tSSEPs, are indicative of functional abnormalities with a subclinical involvement of the recorded neuronal pathways. The relevance of the latter findings is not yet clear, but pre-operative tSSEP examinations offer the possibility of assessing alterations in spinal cord function that are undetectable by clinical examination.
PMCID: PMC3468007  PMID: 12905054
Idiopathic scoliosis; MRI; Tibial SSEP; Syringomyelia
17.  Conditioning Lesions Enhance Axonal Regeneration of Descending Brain Neurons in Spinal-Cord-Transected Larval Lamprey 
In larval lamprey, with increasing recovery times after a transection of the rostral spinal cord, there is a gradual recovery of locomotor behavior, and descending brain neurons regenerate their axons for progressively greater distances below the transection site. In the present study, spinal cord “conditioning lesions” (i.e., transections) were performed in the spinal cord at 30% body length (BL; normalized distance from the head) or 50% BL. After various “lesion delay times” (D), a more proximal spinal cord “test lesion” (i.e., transection) was performed at 10% BL, and then, after various recovery times (R), horseradish peroxidase was applied to the spinal cord at 20% BL to determine the extent of axonal regeneration of descending brain neurons. Conditioning lesions at 30% BL, lesion delay times of 2 weeks, and recovery times of 4 weeks (D-R = 2–4 group) resulted in a significant enhancement of axonal regeneration for the total numbers of descending brain neurons as well as neurons in certain brain cell groups compared to control animals without conditioning lesions. Experiments with hemiconditioning lesions, which reduce interanimal variability, confirmed that conditioning lesions do significantly enhance axonal regeneration and indicate that axotomy rather than diffusible factors released at the injury site is primarily involved in this enhancement. Results from the present study suggest that conditioning lesions “prime” descending brain neurons via cell body responses and enhance subsequent axonal regeneration, probably by reducing the initial delay and/or increasing the initial rate of axonal outgrowth.
PMCID: PMC2915934  PMID: 15384066
axotomy; reticulospinal neurons; spinal cord injury; conditioning lesion; test lesion
18.  Spinally projecting preproglucagon axons preferentially innervate sympathetic preganglionic neurons 
Neuroscience  2015;284:872-887.
•Spinal GLP-1 axons target primarily sympathetic preganglionic neurons.•Spinal GLP-1 axons innervate interneurons that may regulate sympathetic outflow.•Many GLP-1 neurons in the medulla are spinally-projecting.•The lumbar cord contains YFP-expressing neurons that do not innervate the brain.
Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) affects central autonomic neurons, including those controlling the cardiovascular system, thermogenesis, and energy balance. Preproglucagon (PPG) neurons, located mainly in the nucleus tractus solitarius (NTS) and medullary reticular formation, produce GLP-1. In transgenic mice expressing glucagon promoter-driven yellow fluorescent protein (YFP), these brainstem PPG neurons project to many central autonomic regions where GLP-1 receptors are expressed. The spinal cord also contains GLP-1 receptor mRNA but the distribution of spinal PPG axons is unknown.
Here, we used two-color immunoperoxidase labeling to examine PPG innervation of spinal segments T1–S4 in YFP-PPG mice. Immunoreactivity for YFP identified spinal PPG axons and perikarya. We classified spinal neurons receiving PPG input by immunoreactivity for choline acetyltransferase (ChAT), nitric oxide synthase (NOS) and/or Fluorogold (FG) retrogradely transported from the peritoneal cavity. FG microinjected at T9 defined cell bodies that supplied spinal PPG innervation.
The deep dorsal horn of lower lumbar cord contained YFP-immunoreactive neurons. Non-varicose, YFP-immunoreactive axons were prominent in the lateral funiculus, ventral white commissure and around the ventral median fissure. In T1–L2, varicose, YFP-containing axons closely apposed many ChAT-immunoreactive sympathetic preganglionic neurons (SPN) in the intermediolateral cell column (IML) and dorsal lamina X. In the sacral parasympathetic nucleus, about 10% of ChAT-immunoreactive preganglionic neurons received YFP appositions, as did occasional ChAT-positive motor neurons throughout the rostrocaudal extent of the ventral horn. YFP appositions also occurred on NOS-immunoreactive spinal interneurons and on spinal YFP-immunoreactive neurons. Injecting FG at T9 retrogradely labeled many YFP-PPG cell bodies in the medulla but none of the spinal YFP-immunoreactive neurons.
These results show that brainstem PPG neurons innervate spinal autonomic and somatic motor neurons. The distributions of spinal PPG axons and spinal GLP-1 receptors correlate well. SPN receive the densest PPG innervation. Brainstem PPG neurons could directly modulate sympathetic outflow through their spinal inputs to SPN or interneurons.
PMCID: PMC4300405  PMID: 25450967
AP, area postrema; CAA, central autonomic area; ChAT, choline acetyltransferase; DAB, diaminobenzidine; DMH, dorsomedial nucleus of the hypothalamus; DMV, dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus; Ex-4, exendin-4; FG, Fluorogold; GFP, green fluorescent protein; GLP-1, glucagon-like peptide 1; ICN, intercalated nucleus; IML, intermediolateral cell column; IRT, intermediate reticular nucleus; L, lumbar; LE, lumbar enlargement; NHS, normal horse serum; NOS, nitric oxide synthase; NTS, nucleus of the solitary tract; PPG, preproglucagon; PVN, paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus; S, sacral; SPN, sympathetic preganglionic neuron; T, thoracic; YFP, yellow fluorescent protein; choline acetyltransferase; green fluorescent protein; glucagon-like peptide-1; nucleus of the solitary tract; parasympathetic preganglionic neurons; retrograde tracing
19.  All brains are made of this: a fundamental building block of brain matter with matching neuronal and glial masses 
How does the size of the glial and neuronal cells that compose brain tissue vary across brain structures and species? Our previous studies indicate that average neuronal size is highly variable, while average glial cell size is more constant. Measuring whole cell sizes in vivo, however, is a daunting task. Here we use chi-square minimization of the relationship between measured neuronal and glial cell densities in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and rest of brain in 27 mammalian species to model neuronal and glial cell mass, as well as the neuronal mass fraction of the tissue (the fraction of tissue mass composed by neurons). Our model shows that while average neuronal cell mass varies by over 500-fold across brain structures and species, average glial cell mass varies only 1.4-fold. Neuronal mass fraction varies typically between 0.6 and 0.8 in all structures. Remarkably, we show that two fundamental, universal relationships apply across all brain structures and species: (1) the glia/neuron ratio varies with the total neuronal mass in the tissue (which in turn depends on variations in average neuronal cell mass), and (2) the neuronal mass per glial cell, and with it the neuronal mass fraction and neuron/glia mass ratio, varies with average glial cell mass in the tissue. We propose that there is a fundamental building block of brain tissue: the glial mass that accompanies a unit of neuronal mass. We argue that the scaling of this glial mass is a consequence of a universal mechanism whereby numbers of glial cells are added to the neuronal parenchyma during development, irrespective of whether the neurons composing it are large or small, but depending on the average mass of the glial cells being added. We also show how evolutionary variations in neuronal cell mass, glial cell mass and number of neurons suffice to determine the most basic characteristics of brain structures, such as mass, glia/neuron ratio, neuron/glia mass ratio, and cell densities.
PMCID: PMC4228857  PMID: 25429260
allometry; glia/neuron ratio; number of neurons; number of glial cells; cell size; brain size
20.  Dorsal horn-enriched genes identified by DNA microarray, in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry 
BMC Neuroscience  2002;3:11.
Neurons in the dorsal spinal cord play important roles in nociception and pain. These neurons receive input from peripheral sensory neurons and then transmit the signals to the brain, as well as receive and integrate descending control signals from the brain. Many molecules important for pain transmission have been demonstrated to be localized to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Further understanding of the molecular interactions and signaling pathways in the dorsal horn neurons will require a better knowledge of the molecular neuroanatomy in the dorsal spinal cord.
A large scale screening was conducted for genes with enriched expression in the dorsal spinal cord using DNA microarray and quantitative real-time PCR. In addition to genes known to be specifically expressed in the dorsal spinal cord, other neuropeptides, receptors, ion channels, and signaling molecules were also found enriched in the dorsal spinal cord. In situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry revealed the cellular expression of a subset of these genes. The regulation of a subset of the genes was also studied in the spinal nerve ligation (SNL) neuropathic pain model. In general, we found that the genes that are enriched in the dorsal spinal cord were not among those found to be up-regulated in the spinal nerve ligation model of neuropathic pain. This study also provides a level of validation of the use of DNA microarrays in conjunction with our novel analysis algorithm (SAFER) for the identification of differences in gene expression.
This study identified molecules that are enriched in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and provided a molecular neuroanatomy in the spinal cord, which will aid in the understanding of the molecular mechanisms important in nociception and pain.
PMCID: PMC126259  PMID: 12188929
21.  Dynamic Oscillatory Signatures of Central Neuropathic Pain in Spinal Cord Injury 
The Journal of Pain  2014;15(6):645-655.
Central neuropathic pain (CNP) is believed to be accompanied by increased activation of the sensorimotor cortex. Our knowledge of this interaction is based mainly on functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, but there is little direct evidence on how these changes manifest in terms of dynamic neuronal activity. This study reports on the presence of transient electroencephalography (EEG)-based measures of brain activity during motor imagery in spinal cord–injured patients with CNP. We analyzed dynamic EEG responses during imaginary movements of arms and legs in 3 groups of 10 volunteers each, comprising able-bodied people, paraplegic patients with CNP (lower abdomen and legs), and paraplegic patients without CNP. Paraplegic patients with CNP had increased event-related desynchronization in the theta, alpha, and beta bands (16–24 Hz) during imagination of movement of both nonpainful (arms) and painful limbs (legs). Compared to patients with CNP, paraplegics with no pain showed a much reduced power in relaxed state and reduced event-related desynchronization during imagination of movement. Understanding these complex dynamic, frequency-specific activations in CNP in the absence of nociceptive stimuli could inform the design of interventional therapies for patients with CNP and possibly further understanding of the mechanisms involved.
This study compares the EEG activity of spinal cord–injured patients with CNP to that of spinal cord–injured patients with no pain and also to that of able-bodied people. The study shows that the presence of CNP itself leads to frequency-specific EEG signatures that could be used to monitor CNP and inform neuromodulatory treatments of this type of pain.
PMCID: PMC4058526  PMID: 24589821
Central neuropathic pain; spinal cord injury; event-related synchronization/desynchronization; motor imagery; electroencephalography
22.  Morphologic diversity of cutaneous sensory afferents revealed by genetically directed sparse labeling 
eLife  2012;1:e00181.
The diversity of cutaneous sensory afferents has been studied by many investigators using behavioral, physiologic, molecular, and genetic approaches. Largely missing, thus far, is an analysis of the complete morphologies of individual afferent arbors. Here we present a survey of cutaneous sensory arbor morphologies in hairy skin of the mouse using genetically-directed sparse labeling with a sensory neuron-specific alkaline phosphatase reporter. Quantitative analyses of 719 arbors, among which 77 were fully reconstructed, reveal 10 morphologically distinct types. Among the two types with the largest arbors, one contacts ∼200 hair follicles with circumferential endings and a second is characterized by a densely ramifying arbor with one to several thousand branches and a total axon length between one-half and one meter. These observations constrain models of receptive field size and structure among cutaneous sensory neurons, and they raise intriguing questions regarding the cellular and developmental mechanisms responsible for this morphological diversity.
eLife digest
Sensory neurons carry information from sensory cells in the eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the brain and spinal cord so that they can coordinate the body's response to its environment and various stimuli. The sensory organs responsible for four of the traditional senses—vision, hearing, smell and taste—are relatively small and self-contained: however, the sensory organ responsible for touch is as big as the body itself. Moreover, a variety of many different types of sensory cells in the skin allow the body to respond to temperature, pain, itches and a range of other external stimuli.
Despite more than a century of research, relatively little is known about the morphology of the complex networks (arbors) of sensory neurons that send signals towards the central nervous system. This is mainly due to difficulties involved in imaging intact skin, the way that different arbors overlap and intermingle, and the relatively large distances that separate the bodies of neuronal cells and the farthest reaches of their arbors.
Wu et al. employed an imaging method that exploits the Cre-Lox system that is already widely used in genetics. In this approach a Cre enzyme is used to remove a region of DNA that is flanked by two genetically engineered Lox sequences. Wu et al. used a gene that codes for an enzyme marker (alkaline phosphatase) that previous investigators had into the DNA of mice. The gene was inserted in such a way that it was only expressed in sensory neurons that innervate the skin when Cre-Lox recombination had removed an adjacent segment of DNA. Moreover, Wu et al. used this reporter gene in combination with a modified Cre enzyme that only enters the nuclei of cells in the presence of a drug (Tamoxifen), so the probability that the marker gene is expressed is determined by the concentration of Tamoxifen. By administering a low level of Tamoxifen to pregnant mice, it was possible to label a very small number of sensory neurons in each embryo. Individual neurons that express the alkaline phosphatase marker were visualized with a histochemical reaction that rendered them dark purple. The remainder of the tissue remained unstained.
Based on quantitative analyses of the morphologies of more than 700 arbors, Wu et al. identified 10 distinct types of neurons. Of the two types of neurons with the largest arbors, one makes contact with ∼200 hair follicles, with the nerve endings completely encircling the follicles; the other type of arbor contains several thousand branches, with a total length for all of the branches summing to as much as one meter in length. The next challenge is to study the morphologies of neurons in tissues other than the skin, and also the neurons involved in other sensory systems, and to explore the cellular and developmental mechanisms responsible for the morphological diversity found in these initial experiments.
PMCID: PMC3524796  PMID: 23256042
skin; neuronal morphology; sparse labeling; receptive field; Brn3a; Mouse
23.  Brain scaling in mammalian evolution as a consequence of concerted and mosaic changes in numbers of neurons and average neuronal cell size 
Enough species have now been subject to systematic quantitative analysis of the relationship between the morphology and cellular composition of their brain that patterns begin to emerge and shed light on the evolutionary path that led to mammalian brain diversity. Based on an analysis of the shared and clade-specific characteristics of 41 modern mammalian species in 6 clades, and in light of the phylogenetic relationships among them, here we propose that ancestral mammal brains were composed and scaled in their cellular composition like modern afrotherian and glire brains: with an addition of neurons that is accompanied by a decrease in neuronal density and very little modification in glial cell density, implying a significant increase in average neuronal cell size in larger brains, and the allocation of approximately 2 neurons in the cerebral cortex and 8 neurons in the cerebellum for every neuron allocated to the rest of brain. We also propose that in some clades the scaling of different brain structures has diverged away from the common ancestral layout through clade-specific (or clade-defining) changes in how average neuronal cell mass relates to numbers of neurons in each structure, and how numbers of neurons are differentially allocated to each structure relative to the number of neurons in the rest of brain. Thus, the evolutionary expansion of mammalian brains has involved both concerted and mosaic patterns of scaling across structures. This is, to our knowledge, the first mechanistic model that explains the generation of brains large and small in mammalian evolution, and it opens up new horizons for seeking the cellular pathways and genes involved in brain evolution.
PMCID: PMC4127475  PMID: 25157220
numbers of neurons; brain size; cortical expansion; evolution; cell size
24.  Maladaptive spinal plasticity opposes spinal learning and recovery in spinal cord injury 
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.
PMCID: PMC3468083  PMID: 23087647
pain; nociception; plasticity; spinal cord injury; spinal cord learning; recovery of function
25.  Presynaptically Localized Cyclic GMP-Dependent Protein Kinase 1 Is a Key Determinant of Spinal Synaptic Potentiation and Pain Hypersensitivity 
PLoS Biology  2012;10(3):e1001283.
Electrophysiological and behavioral experiments in mice reveal that a cGMP-dependent kinase amplifies neurotransmitter release from peripheral pain sensors, potentiates spinal synapses, and leads to exaggerated pain.
Synaptic long-term potentiation (LTP) at spinal neurons directly communicating pain-specific inputs from the periphery to the brain has been proposed to serve as a trigger for pain hypersensitivity in pathological states. Previous studies have functionally implicated the NMDA receptor-NO pathway and the downstream second messenger, cGMP, in these processes. Because cGMP can broadly influence diverse ion-channels, kinases, and phosphodiesterases, pre- as well as post-synaptically, the precise identity of cGMP targets mediating spinal LTP, their mechanisms of action, and their locus in the spinal circuitry are still unclear. Here, we found that Protein Kinase G1 (PKG-I) localized presynaptically in nociceptor terminals plays an essential role in the expression of spinal LTP. Using the Cre-lox P system, we generated nociceptor-specific knockout mice lacking PKG-I specifically in presynaptic terminals of nociceptors in the spinal cord, but not in post-synaptic neurons or elsewhere (SNS-PKG-I−/− mice). Patch clamp recordings showed that activity-induced LTP at identified synapses between nociceptors and spinal neurons projecting to the periaqueductal grey (PAG) was completely abolished in SNS-PKG-I−/− mice, although basal synaptic transmission was not affected. Analyses of synaptic failure rates and paired-pulse ratios indicated a role for presynaptic PKG-I in regulating the probability of neurotransmitter release. Inositol 1,4,5-triphosphate receptor 1 and myosin light chain kinase were recruited as key phosphorylation targets of presynaptic PKG-I in nociceptive neurons. Finally, behavioural analyses in vivo showed marked defects in SNS-PKG-I−/− mice in several models of activity-induced nociceptive hypersensitivity, and pharmacological studies identified a clear contribution of PKG-I expressed in spinal terminals of nociceptors. Our results thus indicate that presynaptic mechanisms involving an increase in release probability from nociceptors are operational in the expression of synaptic LTP on spinal-PAG projection neurons and that PKG-I localized in presynaptic nociceptor terminals plays an essential role in this process to regulate pain sensitivity.
Author Summary
Pain is an important physiological function that protects our body from harm. Pain-sensing neurons, called nociceptors, transduce harmful stimuli into electrical signals and transmit this information to the brain via the spinal cord. When nociceptors are persistently activated, such as after injury, the connections they make with neurons in the spinal cord are altered in a process called synaptic long-term potentiation (LTP). In this study, we examine the molecular and cellular mechanisms of LTP at synapses from nociceptors onto spinal neurons. We use multiple experimental approaches in mice, from genetic to behavioural, to show that this form of LTP involves presynaptic events that unfold in nociceptors when they are repetitively activated. In particular, an enzyme activated by the second messenger cGMP, referred to as Protein Kinase G-I, phosphorylates presynaptic proteins and increases the release of neurotransmitters from nociceptor endings in the spinal cord. When we genetically silence Protein Kinase G-I or block its activation in nociceptors, inflammatory pain is markedly reduced at the behavioural level. These results clarify basic mechanisms of pathological pain and pave the way for new therapeutic approaches.
PMCID: PMC3302842  PMID: 22427743

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