Your Spine Learns Remembers Movement
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Your Spine Remembers Movement

Anyone who’s studied basic biology will likely consider the spinal cord the body’s information super highway that carries messages from the brain to all parts of the body, however, did you know that the spine has the ability to learn on its own, without any input or response from the brain…

Spinal Plasticity Learns Independently from the Brain

Groundbreaking research by a team at the NERF research center has confirmed that the spinal cord can learn and remember movements independently of the brain. The new findings begin to uncover the underlying functions of the spinal cord’s complex job, which should lead to new avenues for recovery and rehabilitation following spinal injuries.

It’s long been known that the spinal column can trigger reflex movements without the brain’s involvement; it’s also been found that spinal plasticity acts like a sponge that can soak up knowledge to learn new movements and adjust based on prior experiences, but exactly how all this occurs has always remained a mystery.

Part of the issue of researching this concept comes from the challenge of directly measuring individual neurons’ activity in the spinal cord in animals that are not sedated but still conscious and moving. The new discovery was made possible when researchers at Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF) in Leuven employed a model that can train animals in specific movements within minutes.

Spinal Plasticity Research

The research study can be read at: Two inhibitory neuronal classes govern acquisition and recall of spinal sensorimotor adaptation. Lavaud, et al. Science, 2024.

In doing so, the team observed a cell type-specific mechanism that appeared to be responsible for spinal cord learning in dorsal and ventral neuronal populations. The team identified two distinct neuronal populations that allowed the spinal cord to recall learned behaviors and movements completely independent of the brain.

Professor Aya Takeoka, a neuroscientist at the NERF research institute explained:

“Although we have evidence of ‘learning’ within the spinal cord from experiments dating back as early as the beginning of the 20th century, the question of which neurons are involved and how they encode this learning experience has remained unanswered.”

How The Experiment Worked

In the novel experiment the team used a pair of mice that had both had spinal cord transections; effectively cutting off the spine from their brains.

One mouse was the ‘control’ the other ‘experimental.’ Both were held upright in harness, which allowed them to lift their legs off the ground.

The mice were placed over a low voltage electrical platform. Each time that mouses feet dangled too low and touched the floor, it would receive a small shock.

Both mice received the same level of shock at the same time, regardless how firm it touches the floor, or the position of the leg and foot.

After only 10 minutes, the experimental mouse would keep its legs from touching the ground, whilst the control mouse kept its feet dangling. The next day the experiment was repeated but the mice switched roles, and as expected the results came in in reverse.

By preventing the communication between the brain and spine prior to the experiment the results were able to show that the spinal cord indeed has the ability to retain memories from previous experiences, without the need for signals from the brain.

Your Spine Remembers Movement

Simon Lavaud, a doctoral researcher with Takeoka team setup an experimental test to analyze movement adjustments in mice, he explained:

“We evaluated the contribution of six different neuronal populations and identified two groups of neurons, one dorsal and one ventral, that mediate motor learning..

 

“These two sets of neurons take turns. The dorsal neurons help the spinal cord learn a new movement, while the ventral neurons help it remember and perform the movement later…

 

“You can compare it to a relay race within the spinal cord. The dorsal neurons act like the first runner, passing on the critical sensory information for learning. Then, the ventral cells take the baton, ensuring the learned movement is remembered and executed smoothly.” 

The promising results shows neuronal activity in the spinal cord resembles some classical types of learning and memory that we already understand, and by better understanding how this can occur independently from the brain, we may be able to more easily decipher the vital learning mechanisms at play.

Prof. Aya Takeoka added: 

“The circuits we described could provide the means for the spinal cord to contribute to movement learning and long-term motor memory, which both help us to move, not only in normal health but especially during recovery from brain or spinal cord injuries. 

The findings, published today in Science, thrust doubt on the long-held view that communication only occurs between the brain and body, and thus highlights the potential for rethinking our approach to movement recovery. It’s hoped that the breakthrough research will pave the way for more significant implications in development of new treatments and rehabilitation strategies for those recovering from spinal injuries.

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