Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Vicki Tysseling Lab

About Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Spinal Cord

The spinal cord mediates messages between the body and brain. It is continuous with the brainstem, and is housed within the vertebrae, running down the spinal column and ending in nerves reaching out to the periphery. The spinal cord is an extremely complex central nervous system structure that can coordinate, disseminate, and carry out motor and sensory directives. The spinal cord plays a fundamental role in movement, and our aim is to help uncover its mechanisms, especially those mechanisms which are implicated in SCI.

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

The primary effect of spinal cord injury is disruption of the messages between the brain and the body. The injury can be traumatic, such as from a car accident. In this type of injury, a strong force damages or moves the spinal vertebrae in such a way that the space within the vertebrae is compromised. This space is where the spinal cord is found and when it is compromised, a traumatic injury ensues. Alternatively, the injury can result from a non-traumatic assault to the spinal cord, such as from a spinal tumor. Almost all cases of SCI are from bruising or compression and are very rarely from a complete severing of the spinal cord. This means that in most cases of human SCI, some spinal tracts are not damaged (in other words, they are spared).  These spared tracts could potentially relay information from the periphery to the brain. The amount of sparing is likely correlated with the amount of recovery experienced by the individual. But even with severe injury, sparing can still occur. This could be therapeutically potentiated by specifically altering spinal excitability.

Spasms and Spasticity

Most people associate spinal cord injury with paralysis or paresis below the injury. However, there are often more complications to consider. The majority of people with SCI also experience uncontrolled involuntary muscle contractions that can cause significant functional deficits, pain and discomfort, and safety issues. These muscle contractions, or spasms, often develop later. As time progresses and the injury becomes chronic, the spasms manifest. These spasms are related to modified excitability levels in neurons within the spinal cord post-injury. We believe that a better understanding of the changing neuronal excitability landscape is crucial to improving functional outcomes in both complete and incomplete spinal injury. 

For more information about spinal cord injury, check out the NIH's guide to spinal cord injury and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's (RIC) guide to treatment steps