Plasticity in spinal cord networks: development, disuse and activity

Rationale. It is surprising that our understanding of how networks of nerve cells working together within the central nervous system to produce movement is still quite incomplete. This lack of understanding becomes evident when the system is faced with challenges such as in ageing, after an injury or even in early development. This project aims to investigate different aspects of such circuits (especially those located in the spinal cord), how they work and how they change in different situations. 

Plan of Work. Using rodents’ behaviour, we will investigate how nerve cells in the central nervous system function to control stepping patterns, learn new motor skills and adapt to changing conditions such as in exercise, ageing, disease and trauma such as spinal cord injuries. We use a combination of behavioural, surgical, anatomical, pharmacological and electrophysiological techniques to investigate those phenomena.

Animal Welfare. The wellbeing of all our animals is of utmost importance for successful scientific observations. It is well known that stress and pain negatively impact production of movement and recovery of motor function after spinal cord injuries. In our long term studies, especially those involving trauma to the central nervous system, animals are individually cared for 2 to 3 times daily, 7 days/week for the duration of the entire experiments. This procedure guarantees optimal animal welfare and wellbeing. 

3Rs. At this stage of understanding the use of animals is still necessary and the only model able to answer current scientific questions of this nature. However, our procedures are constantly revised and refined with implementation of new monitoring devices, housing conditions, etc. 

Implications: Our findings have had and will have further impact in the field of neurosciences, movement control, robotics, rehabilitation and neurology. Some of our previous findings in rodents have already been translated into human clinical use. For example, we demonstrated that using a specific type of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord led to recovery of stepping ability in severely injured rats. This technique has been successfully translated into human use. Our new understanding of how these systems change after injury and with recovery will lead to improvements in human conditions such as spinal cord injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy, etc..

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