Applying functional MRI to the spinal cord and brainstem (2010)

Author(s): JK Leitch, CR Figley, and PW Stroman

Magnetic Resonance Imaging 28(8): 1225–1233.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the spinal cord (spinal fMRI) has facilitated the noninvasive visualization of neural activity in the spinal cord (SC) and brainstem of both animals and humans. This technique has yet to gain the widespread usage of brain fMRI, due in part to the intrinsic technical challenges spinal fMRI presents and to the narrower scope of applications it fulfills. Nonetheless, methodological progress has been considerable and rapid. To date, spinal fMRI studies have investigated SC function during sensory or motor task paradigms in spinal cord injury (SCI), multiple sclerosis (MS) and neuropathic pain (NP) patient populations, all of which have yielded consistent and sensitive results. The most recent study in our laboratory has successfully used spinal fMRI to examine cervical SC activity in a SCI patient with a metallic fixation device spanning the C4 to C6 vertebrae, a critical step in realizing the clinical utility of the technique. The literature reviewed in this article suggests that spinal fMRI is poised for usage in a wide range of patient populations, as multiple groups have observed intriguing, yet consistent, results using standard, readily available MR systems and hardware. The next step is the implementation of this technique in the clinic to supplement standard qualitative behavioral assessments of SCI. Spinal fMRI may offer insight into the subtleties of function in the injured and diseased SC, and support the development of new methods for treatment and monitoring.

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