Motoneuron BDNF/TrkB signaling enhances functional recovery after cervical spinal cord injury

Carlos B. Mantilla, Heather M. Gransee, Wen Zhi Zhan, Gary C. Sieck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


A C2 cervical spinal cord hemisection (SH) interrupts descending inspiratory-related drive to phrenic motoneurons located between C3 and C5 in rats, paralyzing the ipsilateral hemidiaphragm muscle. There is gradual recovery of rhythmic diaphragm muscle activity ipsilateral to cervical spinal cord injury over time, consistent with neuroplasticity and strengthening of spared, contralateral descending premotor input to phrenic motoneurons. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) signaling through the tropomyosin related kinase receptor subtype B (TrkB) plays an important role in neuroplasticity following spinal cord injury. We hypothesized that 1) increasing BDNF/TrkB signaling at the level of the phrenic motoneuron pool by intrathecal BDNF delivery enhances functional recovery of rhythmic diaphragm activity after SH, and 2) inhibiting BDNF/TrkB signaling by quenching endogenous neurotrophins with the soluble fusion protein TrkB-Fc or by knocking down TrkB receptor expression in phrenic motoneurons using intrapleurally-delivered siRNA impairs functional recovery after SH. Diaphragm EMG electrodes were implanted bilaterally to verify complete hemisection at the time of SH and 3days post-SH. After SH surgery in adult rats, an intrathecal catheter was placed at C4 to chronically infuse BDNF or TrkB-Fc using an implanted mini-osmotic pump. At 14days post-SH, all intrathecal BDNF treated rats (n=9) displayed recovery of ipsilateral hemidiaphragm EMG activity, compared to 3 out of 8 untreated SH rats (p<0.01). During eupnea, BDNF treated rats exhibited 76±17% of pre-SH root mean squared EMG vs. only 5±3% in untreated SH rats (p<0.01). In contrast, quenching endogenous BDNF with intrathecal TrkB-Fc treatment completely prevented functional recovery up to 14days post-SH (n=7). Immunoreactivity of the transcription factor cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB), a downstream effector of TrkB signaling, increased in phrenic motoneurons following BDNF treatment (n=6) compared to artificial cerebrospinal fluid treatment (n=6; p<0.001). Intrapleural injections of non-sense or TrkB siRNA were administered after SH to specifically target phrenic motoneurons. At 14days post-SH, none out of 9 TrkB siRNA treated rats displayed functional recovery compared to 5 out of 9 non-sense siRNA treated rats. These results indicate that BDNF/TrkB signaling in phrenic motoneuron pool plays a critical role in functional recovery after cervical spinal cord injury.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-109
Number of pages9
JournalExperimental Neurology
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • CREB
  • Diaphragm muscle
  • Neuroplasticity
  • Neurotrophin
  • Phrenic motoneuron
  • Respiration
  • Respiratory
  • SiRNA
  • Spinal hemisection
  • TrkB-Fc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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