Over the past 20 years, tremendous advances have been made in the field of spinal cord injury research. Yet, consumed with individual pieces of the puzzle, we have failed as a community to grasp the magnitude of the sum of our findings. Our current knowledge should allow us to improve the lives of patients suffering from spinal cord injury. Advances in multiple areas have provided tools for pursuing effective combination of strategies for recovering stepping and standing after a severe spinal cord injury. Muscle physiology research has provided insight into how to maintain functional muscle properties after a spinal cord injury.
Understanding the role of the spinal networks in processing sensory information that is important for the generation of motor functions has focused research on developing treatments that sharpen the sensitivity of the locomotor circuitry and that carefully manage the presentation of proprioceptive and cutaneous stimuli to favor recovery. Pharmacological facilitation or inhibition of neurotransmitter systems, spinal cord stimulation, and rehabilitative motor training, which all function by modulating the physiological state of the spinal circuitry, have emerged as promising approaches. Early technological developments, such as robotic training systems and high-density electrode arrays for stimulating the spinal cord, can significantly enhance the precision and minimize the invasiveness of treatment after an injury.
Strategies that seek out the complementary effects of combination treatments and that efficiently integrate relevant technical advances in bioengineering represent an untapped potential and are likely to have an immediate impact. Herein, we review key findings in each of these areas of research and present a unified vision for moving forward. Much work remains, but we already have the capability, and more importantly, the responsibility, to help spinal cord injury patients now.