All Sensation Is Not Lost In Thoracic Spinal Cord Injuries

By Dr Sylvia Gustin


I am particularly excited about my new research which shows that in people who suffer from spinal cord injury, 50% of those that suffer complete thoracic spinal cord injuries are still left with some of their sensory connections intact, and although suffers cannot sense touch below the waist, their brain still lights up to indicate that sensation was present!

This is a breakthrough for spinal cord injury research, as it challenges the consensus that sensation is lost below the region of complete spinal cord injury. I argue that there must be a new third group to be defined in spinal cord injury sufferers. At the moment there is complete and incomplete spinal cord injury, yet there now has to be another, which I call discomplete.

For those that don’t have time to read the paper, I made this breakthrough via the use of simple sensation tests and fMRI scanning. I loaded participants into the fMRI scanner and live scanned their brain for increases in activity while brushing a feather across their toes, and I asked if they felt anything. In people without spinal cord injury, they would consciously feel the sensation, and verbally acknowledge it, simultaneously their brain would like up in the region associated for sensation and mapped to the part f the brain that represents the toes. In complete spinal cord injury sufferers, the simple toe brush test has been performed for years to show that they cannot feel it, there is no verbal acknowledgment, and we assumed this was due to the obvious spinal cord injury. Yet if you put these people into the fMRI scanner, their brain betrays them, in 50% of people, even if they don’t consciously feel it, there is no verbal acknowledgment, their brain still does!

This is amazing as it opens up dialogue, research and treatment opportunities for spinal cord injury sufferers. There is no exact treatment yet, but it is clear this is one of the first stepping stones towards further research and better treatment.

Before I go though, I must thank my collaborators, A/Prof Paul Wrigley from the University of Sydney, and Prof Phillip Siddall from HammondCare, this was a team effort over the last 10 years, and we are all ecstatic with the result.




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