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Roughly half of people classified as having complete spinal cord injuries may still have surviving sensory nerve connections sending messages to the brain, an Australian study suggests.


Dr Gustin said patients did not “feel” the touch to their big toes, but the fMRI scans showed “a significant signal” in the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices (the thalamus and cerebellum), “It’s an amazing feeling, hearing that,” he (Mr Stanley) said. “If doctors can identify people like me, then who knows, hopefully they can find treatments and rehabilitation techniques to help open up those connections.”

The breakthrough study by Wrigley, Siddall and Gustin used cutting edge functional MRI (fMRI) technology to record neural response to touch. NeuRA’s Dr Sylvia Gustin analysed the fMRI images to identify the moment the patient’s brain registered the touch.


Dr Gustin said seeing the brain light up to touch shows, despite complete injury of the thoracic spine, somatosensory pathways have been preserved.


“What is fascinating is though the patients did not ‘feel’ the big toe stimulation, we were able to detect a significant signal in the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, the thalamus, and the cerebellum,” said Dr Gustin.


“This means, despite previously believing the communication to the brain had been severed in the injury, messages are still being received by the brain.”


The results of the study, which is part of a decade long collaboration between the researchers, were published in the journal Human Brain Mapping. University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Paul Wrigley said the findings open new avenues for future research and treatment opportunities.


“It is exciting to find a way to clearly show when sensory pathways are intact. This opens up new opportunities to identify those people living with a spinal cord injury that are more likely to benefit from treatments aimed at improving sensation and movement,” said A/Prof Wrigley.