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."

The video will load shortly
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: Spinal cord treatment offers hope

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.

Evidence for spinal membrane as a source of stem cells may advance spinal cord treatment

October 28, 2011
Italian and Spanish scientists studying the use of stem cells for treating spinal cord injuries have provided the first evidence to show that meninges, the membrane which envelops the central nervous system, is a potential ...

Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

May 3, 2011
Rutgers researchers have developed an innovative new treatment that could help minimize nerve damage in spinal cord injuries, promote tissue healing and minimize pain.

Recommended for you

'Residual echo' of ancient humans in scans may hold clues to mental disorders

July 26, 2017
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a "residual echo" from our ancient past. The more ...

Laser used to reawaken lost memories in mice with Alzheimer's disease

July 26, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Columbia University has found that applying a laser to the part of a mouse brain used for memory storage caused the mice to recall memories lost due to a mouse version of Alzheimer's ...

Cognitive cross-training enhances learning, study finds

July 25, 2017
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois ...

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Zebrafish study reveals clues to healing spinal cord injuries

July 25, 2017
Fresh insights into how zebrafish repair their nerve connections could hold clues to new therapies for people with spinal cord injuries.

Lutein may counter cognitive aging, study finds

July 25, 2017
Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

0 comments

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.