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The spinal cord can learn and remember—completely independent of the brain

Study reveals how specific neuronal populations within the spinal cord facilitate learning and recall of movements.
Study reveals how specific neuronal populations within the spinal cord facilitate learning and recall of movements. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


The spinal cord, often regarded as a mere messenger between the brain and the body, has now emerged as a hub of learning and memory, independent of the brain.


Researchers at the Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF) in Leuven reveal how specific neuronal populations within the spinal cord facilitate learning and recall of movements, shedding new light on its role beyond simple relay functions.


 
 

Understanding the Spinal Cord’s Plasticity


The spinal cord possesses an intriguing ability to fine-tune movements and actions autonomously, even in the absence of brain input. Professor Aya Takeoka, leading a team at NERF, delves into this phenomenon, exploring how nerve connections adapt during movement learning and recovery from injuries.


3D illustration showing a cross-section of the human spinal cord.
3D illustration showing a cross-section of the human spinal cord. (CREDIT: Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF))


Despite evidence of spinal cord learning dating back to the early 20th century, the exact neurons involved and their encoding mechanisms have remained elusive due to challenges in observing neuronal activity in awake, moving animals.


 
 

Revealing Neuronal Mechanisms


To address this challenge, doctoral researcher Simon Lavaud and colleagues at NERF devised an innovative experimental setup, drawing inspiration from insect studies.


By training mice in specific movements, they identified two distinct neuronal populations—one dorsal and one ventral—that play pivotal roles in motor learning. Lavaud explains, "The dorsal neurons facilitate learning, while the ventral neurons ensure retention and execution of learned movements."


 

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This relay-like mechanism orchestrates the acquisition and recall of motor skills within the spinal cord itself.


Comparing it to a relay race, Lavaud believes, "The dorsal neurons initiate learning by relaying sensory information, akin to the first runner in a race, while the ventral neurons take over to ensure smooth execution, similar to the subsequent runners passing the baton."


 
 

Implications for Learning and Rehabilitation


The findings, detailed in Science, highlight parallels between spinal cord neuronal activity and classical forms of learning and memory. Unraveling these mechanisms not only deepens our understanding of movement acquisition and automation but also holds significance for rehabilitation. Prof. Takeoka emphasizes, "The circuits identified could facilitate movement learning and long-term motor memory, crucial for recovery from brain or spinal cord injuries."


Professor Aya Takeoka, doctoral researcher Simon Lavaud, Mattia D'Andola, Charlotte Bichara, Sho-Hao Yeh.
Professor Aya Takeoka, doctoral researcher Simon Lavaud, Mattia D'Andola, Charlotte Bichara, Sho-Hao Yeh. (CREDIT: Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders)


As research in neuroscience advances, the once oversimplified role of the spinal cord evolves, revealing its complex contributions to motor function and learning.


 
 

The work conducted by Prof. Takeoka and her team at NERF illuminates the intricate workings of spinal circuits and opens avenues for innovative approaches to rehabilitation. By harnessing the spinal cord's inherent plasticity, scientists may pave the way for enhanced recovery strategies and improved quality of life for individuals with spinal injuries.



The research (team) was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), a Taiwan-KU Leuven PhD fellowship (P1040), and the Wings for Life Spinal Cord Research Foundation. 


 
 

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






For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 

 

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