Research Snapshot: Dr. Erica Dale and Ian Malone

By Michelle Jaffee

RS: Erica Dale
Rats in the study are implanted with electrodes to record breathing signals from the diaphragm and to lightly stimulate the spinal cord in rhythm with natural breathing. This stimulation lasts for four days after spinal cord injury, and we found the neural network adapted and improved and evoked breathing signals were enhanced.

A new rat-model study by University of Florida neuroscientists found that applying a form of electrical stimulation below a spinal cord injury and in sync with natural breathing rhythm elicited respiratory neuroplasticity, or ability of neurons and neural networks to change and adapt.

The research, published in the journal eNeuro, was led by Erica A. Dale, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physiology and neuroscience, and Ian G. Malone, a graduate research assistant.

Severe cervical spinal cord injuries, which occur in the upper neck, result in damage to neuronal pathways required for breathing, which can cause significant injury or death, Dale said. Many require mechanical ventilation.

There currently is no cure for paralysis after spinal cord injury. But previous research has shown that epidural stimulation has the potential to restore certain types of motor function, such as stepping, standing or grasping.

In the new study, investigators implanted rats with electrodes in the diaphragm, to record activity there, and they also implanted stimulating electrodes on the epidural surface of the spinal cord in the neck region. They then delivered a form of neuromodulation called closed-loop electrical epidural stimulation, or CLES, providing light stimulation in the same rhythm of natural breathing to “train” the neural networks to become stronger. CLES induced at least short-term plasticity, the research team reported.

“The spinal cord neurons are able to ‘learn’ with our therapeutic stimulation, and we believe this is a promising potential therapy for people with respiratory complications after spinal cord injury,” Dale said.

The next step in this line of research is to extend the original four-day study to a longer timeframe to demonstrate the potential of CLES as rehabilitative therapy for respiration, she said.

Read the paper in eNeuro.