Research ArticleSpinal Cord Injury

Pronounced species divergence in corticospinal tract reorganization and functional recovery after lateralized spinal cord injury favors primates

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Science Translational Medicine  26 Aug 2015:
Vol. 7, Issue 302, pp. 302ra134
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aac5811

Species-specific recovery

Despite decades of research and success in rodent models, there are no therapies that repair the human spinal cord. Friedli et al. looked at the reorganization and function of the corticospinal tract after spinal cord injury (SCI) in rats, monkeys, and humans. In humans with lateralized SCI (affecting only one side of the spinal cord), there was greater recovery in motor function than those with more symmetric injuries; this recovery was mirrored in monkeys with a similar SCI, but not in rats. The authors looked into why such a species divergence exists, and revealed that monkeys had a greater number of bilateral axonal projections that sprouted into denervated spinal segments below the injury, whereas rats had interrupted projections and near-complete depletion of corticospinal fibers. Thus, monkeys and humans have the potential for synaptic reorganization above and below the lesion, and this corticospinal tract reorganization correlates with functional recovery. The authors suggest that primate models should be considered more frequently for research aimed at SCI repair and therapeutics, but acknowledge the importance of rodent models in the field. Furthermore, because the degree of laterality correlates with a positive outcome, the authors suggest that it be factored into clinical trial design.


Experimental and clinical studies suggest that primate species exhibit greater recovery after lateralized compared to symmetrical spinal cord injuries. Although this observation has major implications for designing clinical trials and translational therapies, advantages in recovery of nonhuman primates over other species have not been shown statistically to date, nor have the associated repair mechanisms been identified. We monitored recovery in more than 400 quadriplegic patients and found that functional gains increased with the laterality of spinal cord damage. Electrophysiological analyses suggested that corticospinal tract reorganization contributes to the greater recovery after lateralized compared with symmetrical injuries. To investigate underlying mechanisms, we modeled lateralized injuries in rats and monkeys using a lateral hemisection, and compared anatomical and functional outcomes with patients who suffered similar lesions. Standardized assessments revealed that monkeys and humans showed greater recovery of locomotion and hand function than did rats. Recovery correlated with the formation of corticospinal detour circuits below the injury, which were extensive in monkeys but nearly absent in rats. Our results uncover pronounced interspecies differences in the nature and extent of spinal cord repair mechanisms, likely resulting from fundamental differences in the anatomical and functional characteristics of the motor systems in primates versus rodents. Although rodents remain essential for advancing regenerative therapies, the unique response of the primate corticospinal tract after injury reemphasizes the importance of primate models for designing clinically relevant treatments.

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