New research identifies changes to the brain in patients with spinal cord compression

December 16, 2011

Spinal degeneration is an unavoidable part of aging. For some, it leads to compression of the spinal cord which can cause problems with dexterity, numbness in the hands, the ability to walk, and in some cases, bladder and bowel function. Now, new research from The University of Western Ontario looks beyond the spinal cord injury in these patients to better understand what is happening in the brain. Researchers Robert Bartha, Dr. Neil Duggal and Izabela Kowalczyk found patients with spinal cord compression also had changes in the motor cortex of the brain. The findings are published in Brain.

The study involved 11 healthy controls and 24 patients with reversible spinal cord compression. "When patients undergo surgery for spinal cord compression, some improve, some stay static and some continue to get worse. We're trying to understand which patients we can actually help and which patients will have limited benefit from surgery," explains Dr. Duggal, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Neurological Sciences at Western's Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and a neurosurgeon with London Health Sciences Centre. "We're looking not only at the mechanisms of the spinal cord, but also, what's happening in the and how it responds to injury in the spinal cord, and whether there is any plasticity or ability in the brain to compensate for injury."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Researchers Dr. Neil Duggal, Robert Bartha and Izabela Kowalczyk explain their research which found patients with spinal cord compression also had changes in the motor cortex of the brain. Credit: Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, The University of Western Ontario

Bartha, an imaging scientist with Schulich's Robarts Research Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics, and Kowalczyk, a PhD candidate, had the study participants do a simple motor task, tapping their fingers, while undergoing a 3 Tesla functional MRI scan. This test identified the parts of the brain that were involved in performing this movement, which is often impaired in with spinal cord compression. Once the area was localized, they examined it using proton-magnetic resonance spectroscopy to look at a range of different chemicals or metabolites such as neurotransmitters and amino acids. The goal was to determine whether the levels of these chemicals were any different in the subjects with spinal cord compression.

"Surprisingly, we saw a 15 per-cent decrease in the level of N-acetylaspartate to creatine in those with spinal cord compression. And this is really interesting because N-acetylaspartate is an amino acid that goes down when you have neuronal injury or when neurons are dying. I wasn't expecting to see such a large change in the brain from spinal cord compression," says Bartha.

The researchers are still trying to untangle whether this change is something that occurs over time, with the injury from the propagating back into the brain. This finding has implications for whether or not the condition is reversible, and who may benefit from surgical procedures. The next step, currently underway, is to study whether metabolic levels in the brain change after surgery.

Explore further: Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

Related Stories

Spinal cord treatment offers hope

November 18, 2011

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researchers have developed a promising new treatment for spinal cord injury in animals, which could eventually prevent paralysis in thousands of people worldwide every year.

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.