Research ArticleSpinal Cord Injury

Deep Brain Stimulation of the Midbrain Locomotor Region Improves Paretic Hindlimb Function After Spinal Cord Injury in Rats

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Science Translational Medicine  23 Oct 2013:
Vol. 5, Issue 208, pp. 208ra146
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3005972

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Stimulating Spinal Cord Recovery

In most cases of spinal cord injury, some nerve fibers remain and still connect the brain to the spinal cord below the injury. Fibers from the brain to the spinal cord, particularly those from the brainstem, are crucial for controlling basic movements like walking and swimming. A group of neurons in the midbrain, the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR), has been known for a long time to orchestrate those parts of the brainstem that control walking. In intact rats, electrical deep brain stimulation of the MLR strongly activates walking or trotting. After a spinal cord injury that leaves only a fraction of the projections from the brainstem to the spinal cord intact in rodents, walking and swimming are strongly impaired. Bachmann et al. now show that electrical deep brain stimulation of the MLR in such spinal cord–injured rats improved their ability to walk and swim. During stimulation, animals with even more severe injuries were able to move their otherwise paralyzed hindlimbs. Deep brain stimulation is an increasingly common treatment for patients suffering from other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. The new work suggests that MLR stimulation may be useful for improving gait in patients with spinal cord injury, particularly those who have been living with the injury for some time.