Traumatic and non-traumatic spinal cord injury produce neurodegeneration across the entire neuraxis. However, the spatiotemporal dynamics of spinal cord grey and white matter neurodegeneration above and below the injury is understudied.
We acquired longitudinal data from 13 traumatic and 3 non-traumatic spinal cord injury patients (8–8 cervical and thoracic cord injuries) within 1.5 years after injury and 10 healthy controls over the same period. The protocol encompassed structural and diffusion-weighted MRI rostral (C2/C3) and caudal (lumbar enlargement) to the injury level to track tissue-specific neurodegeneration. Regression models assessed group differences in the temporal evolution of tissue-specific changes and associations with clinical outcomes.
At 2 months post-injury, white matter area was decreased by 8.5% and grey matter by 15.9% in the lumbar enlargement, while at C2/C3 only white matter was decreased (–9.7%). Patients had decreased cervical fractional anisotropy (FA: –11.3%) and increased radial diffusivity (+20.5%) in the dorsal column, while FA was lower in the lateral (–10.3%) and ventral columns (–9.7%) of the lumbar enlargement. White matter decreased by 0.34% and 0.35% per month at C2/C3 and lumbar enlargement, respectively, and grey matter decreased at C2/C3 by 0.70% per month.
This study describes the spatiotemporal dynamics of tissue-specific spinal cord neurodegeneration above and below a spinal cord injury. While above the injury, grey matter atrophy lagged initially behind white matter neurodegeneration, in the lumbar enlargement these processes progressed in parallel. Tracking trajectories of tissue-specific neurodegeneration provides valuable assessment tools for monitoring recovery and treatment effects.