V. Dietz1 and Susan J. Harkema2 1Spinal Cord Injury Center, University Hospital Balgrist, 8008 Zurich, Switzerland; and 2Department of Neurology and Brain Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095
After a spinal cord injury (SCI) of the cat or rat, neuronal centers below the level of lesion exhibit plasticity that can be exploited by specific training paradigms. In individuals with complete or incomplete SCI, human spinal locomotor centers can be activated and modulated by locomotor training (facilitating stepping movements of the legs using body weight support on a treadmill to provide appropriate sensory cues). Individuals with incomplete SCI benefit from locomotor training such that they improve their ability to walk over ground. Load- or hip joint-related afferent input seems to be of crucial importance for both the generation of a locomotor pattern and the effectiveness of the training. However, it may be a critical combination of afferent signals that is needed to generate a locomotor pattern after severe SCI. Mobility of individuals after a SCI can be improved by taking advantage of the plasticity of the central nervous system and can be maintained with persistent locomotor activity. In the future, if regeneration approaches can successfully be applied in human SCI, even individuals with complete SCI may recover walking ability with locomotor training.