The Mechanistic Basis for Successful Spinal Cord Stimulation to Generate Steady Motor Outputs

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Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord is a promising rehabilitation intervention to restore/augment motor function after spinal cord injury (SCI). Combining sensory feedback with stimulation of remaining motor circuits has been shown to be a prerequisite for the functional improvement of SCI patients. However, little is known about the cellular mechanisms potentially underlying this functional benefit in the injured spinal cord. Here, we combine computer simulations with an isolated whole-tissue adult mouse spinal cord preparation to examine synaptic, cellular, and system potentials measured from single motoneurons and ventral roots. The stimulation protocol included separate and combined activation of the sensory inputs (evoked by dorsal root stimulation) and motor inputs (evoked by stimulation of spinal cord tissue) at different frequencies, intensities, and neuromodulatory states. Our data show that, while sensory inputs exhibit short-term depression in response to a train of stimulation, motor inputs exhibit short-term facilitation. However, the concurrent activation of both inputs elicits a stronger and steadier motor output. This effect is enhanced by the application of pharmacological neuromodulators. Furthermore, sensorimotor excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) summate sublinearly (i.e., their combination produces an excitatory potential smaller than the sum of the excitatory potentials they would individually produce). However, ventral root compound action potentials (CoAPs) summate supralinearly generating much higher outputs. Computer simulations revealed that the contrasting summation and disproportionality in plasticity between the excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) and CoAPs result from the motoneuronal firing threshold acting as an amplitude-selective filter. Together, these results provide the mechanistic basis for the cellular processes contributing to the generation of steady motor outputs using spinal stimulation. This data has great potential to guide the design of more effective stimulation protocols in SCI patients.