To characterize remote secondary neurodegeneration of spinal tracts and neurons below a cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) and its relation to the severity of injury, the integrity of efferent and afferent pathways, and clinical impairment.
A comprehensive high-resolution MRI protocol was acquired in 17 traumatic cervical SCI patients and 14 controls at 3T. At the cervical lesion, a sagittal T2-weighted scan provided information on the width of preserved midsagittal tissue bridges. In the lumbar enlargement, high-resolution T2*-weighted and diffusion-weighted scans were used to calculate tissue-specific cross-sectional areas and diffusion indices, respectively. Regression analyses determined associations between MRI readouts and the electrophysiologic and clinical measures.
At the cervical injury level, preserved midsagittal tissue bridges were present in the majority of patients. In the lumbar enlargement, neurodegeneration—in terms of macrostructural and microstructural MRI changes—was evident in the white matter and ventral and dorsal horns. Patients with thinner midsagittal tissue bridges had smaller ventral horn area, higher radial diffusivity in the gray matter, smaller motor evoked potential amplitude from the lower extremities, and lower motor score. In addition, smaller width of midsagittal tissue bridges was also associated with smaller tibialis sensory evoked potential amplitude and lower light-touch score.
This study shows extensive tissue-specific cord pathology in infralesional spinal networks following cervical SCI, its magnitude relating to lesion severity, electrophysiologic integrity, and clinical impairment of the lower extremity. The clinical eloquence of remote neurodegenerative changes speaks to the application of neuroimaging biomarkers in diagnostic workup and planning of clinical trials.