BDNF effects on functional recovery across motor behaviors after cervical spinal cord injury

Vivian Hernandez-Torres, Heather M. Gransee, Carlos B. Mantilla, Yao Wang, Wen Zhi Zhan, Gary C. Sieck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Unilateral C2 cervical spinal cord hemisection (SH) disrupts descending excitatory drive to phrenic motor neurons, thereby paralyzing the ipsilateral diaphragm muscle (DIAm) during ventilatory behaviors. Recovery of rhythmic DIAm activity ipsilateral to injury occurs over time, consistent with neuroplasticity and strengthening of spared synaptic inputs to phrenic motor neurons. Localized intrathecal delivery of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to phrenic motor neurons after SH enhances recovery of eupneic DIAm activity. However, the impact of SH and BDNF treatment on the full range of DIAm motor behaviors has not been fully characterized. We hypothesized that all DIAm motor behaviors are affected by SH and that intrathecal BDNF enhances the recovery of both ventilatory and higher force, nonventilatory motor behaviors. An intrathecal catheter was placed in adult, male Sprague-Dawley rats at C4 to chronically infuse artificial cerebrospinal fluid (aCSF) or BDNF. DIAm electromyography (EMG) electrodes were implanted bilaterally to record activity across motor behaviors, i.e., eupnea, hypoxia-hypercapnia (10% O2 and 5% CO2), sighs, airway occlusion, and sneezing. After SH, ipsilateral DIAm EMG activity was evident in only 43% of aCSF-treated rats during eupnea, and activity was restored in all rats after BDNF treatment. The amplitude of DIAm EMG (root mean square, RMS) was reduced following SH during eupnea and hypoxia-hypercapnia in aCSF-treated rats, and BDNF treatment promoted recovery in both conditions. The amplitude of DIAm RMS EMG during sighs, airway occlusion, and sneezing was not affected by SH or BDNF treatment. We conclude that the effects of SH and BDNF treatment on DIAm activity depend on motor behavior. NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study demonstrates that after unilateral C2 spinal cord hemisection (SH), there are differences in the spontaneous recovery of diaphragm (DIAm) electromyographic activity during ventilatory compared with more forceful, nonventilatory motor behaviors. Furthermore, we show that intrathecal delivery of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) at the level of the phrenic motor neuron pool enhances recovery of ipsilateral DIAm activity following SH, exerting main effects on recovery of ventilatory but not higher force, nonventilatory behaviors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)537-544
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2017


  • Motor unit recruitment
  • Neurotrophin
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory muscle
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Spinal hemisection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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