Segmental organization of spinal reflexes mediating autonomic dysreflexia after spinal cord injury

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Spinal cord injuries above mid-thoracic levels can lead to a potentially life-threatening hypertensive condition termed autonomic dysreflexia that is often triggered by distension of pelvic viscera (bladder or bowel). This syndrome is characterized by episodic hypertension due to sudden, massive discharge of sympathetic preganglionic neurons in the thoracolumbar spinal cord. This hypertension is usually accompanied by bradycardia, particularly if the injury is caudal to the 2nd to 4th thoracic spinal segments. The development of autonomic dysreflexia is correlated with aberrant sprouting of peptidergic afferent fibers into the spinal cord below the injury. In particular, sprouting of nerve growth factor-responsive afferent fibers has been shown to have a major influence on dysreflexia, perhaps by amplifying the activation of disinhibited sympathetic neurons. Using a model of noxious bowel distension after complete thoracic spinal transection at the 4th thoracic segment in rats, we selectively altered C-fiber sprouting, at specified spinal levels caudal to the injury, with microinjections of adenovirus encoding the growth-promoting nerve growth factor or the growth-inhibitory semaphorin 3A. This was followed by assessment of physiological responses to colorectal distension and subsequent histology. Additionally, anterograde tract tracers were injected into the lumbosacral region to compare the extent of labeled propriospinal rostral projections in uninjured cords to those in cords after complete 4th thoracic transection. In summary, overexpression of chemorepulsive semaphorin 3A impeded C-fiber sprouting in lumbosacral segments and mitigated hypertensive autonomic dysreflexia, whereas the opposite results were obtained with nerve growth factor overexpression. Furthermore, compared to naïve rats, there were significantly more labeled lumbosacral propriospinal projections rostrally after thoracic injury. Collectively, our findings suggest that distension of pelvic viscera increases the excitation of expanded afferent terminals in the disinhibited lumbosacral spinal cord. This, in turn, triggers excitation and sprouting of local propriospinal neurons to relay visceral sensory stimuli and amplify the activation of sympathetic preganglionic neurons in the thoracolumbar cord, to enhance transmission in the spinal viscero-sympathetic reflex pathway. These responses are manifested as autonomic dysreflexia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)265-274
Number of pages10
JournalProgress in Brain Research
StatePublished - 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author thanks Dr. Adrian A. Cameron for contributions to the text and Drs. David C. Randall and George M. Smith for critical review. Additionally, Kainath Durre, Johnna Shipp, Igor Voskresensky, and Leslie Schwindel are appreciated for expert technical assistance. AGR is supported by grants from the International Spinal Research Trust, the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Head Injury Research Trust, and the NIH/NINDS (R01 NS-049901-01).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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