Following incomplete spinal cord injury in animals, including humans, substantial locomotor recovery can occur. However, functional aspects of locomotion, such as negotiating obstacles, remains challenging. We collected kinematic and electromyography data in 10 adult cats (5 males, 5 females) before and at weeks 1-2 and 7-8 after a lateral mid-thoracic hemisection on the right side of the cord while they negotiated obstacles of three different heights. Intact cats always cleared obstacles without contact. At weeks 1-2 after hemisection, the ipsilesional right hindlimb contacted obstacles in ~50% of trials, triggering a stumbling corrective reaction or absent responses, which we termed Other. When complete clearance occurred, we observed exaggerated ipsilesional hindlimb flexion when crossing the obstacle with contralesional Left limbs leading. At weeks 7-8 after hemisection, the proportion of complete clearance increased, Other responses decreased, and stumbling corrective reactions remained relatively unchanged. We found redistribution of weight support after hemisection, with reduced diagonal supports and increased homolateral supports, particularly on the left contralesional side. The main neural strategy for complete clearance in intact cats consisted of increased knee flexor activation. After hemisection, ipsilesional knee flexor activation remained, but it was insufficient or more variable as the limb approached the obstacle. Intact cats also increased their speed when stepping over an obstacle, an increase that disappeared after hemisection. The increase in complete clearance over time after hemisection paralleled the recovery of muscle activation patterns or new strategies. Our results suggest partial recovery of anticipatory control through neuroplastic changes in the locomotor control system.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Most spinal cord injuries (SCIs) are incomplete and people can recover some walking functions. However, the main challenge for people with SCIs that do recover a high level of function is to produce a gait that can adjust to everyday occurrences, such as turning, stepping over an obstacle, etc. Here, we use the cat model to answer two basic questions: How does an animal negotiate an obstacle after an incomplete SCI and why does it fail to safely clear it? We show that the inability to clear an obstacle is because of improper activation of muscles that flex the knee. Animals recover a certain amount of function thanks to new strategies and changes within the nervous system.

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This post is Copyright: Lecomte, C. G., Mari, S., Audet, J., Yassine, S., Merlet, A. N., Morency, C., Harnie, J., Beaulieu, C., Gendron, L., Frigon, A. | August 3, 2023
Journal of Neuroscience current issue