Complete spinal transection in the mature nervous system is typically followed by minimal axonal repair, extensive motor paralysis and loss of sensory functions caudal to the injury. In contrast, the immature nervous system has greater capacity for repair, a phenomenon sometimes called the infant lesion effect. This study investigates spinal injuries early in development using the marsupial opossum Monodelphis domestica whose young are born very immature, allowing access to developmental stages only accessible in utero in eutherian mammals. Spinal cords of Monodelphis pups were completely transected in the lower thoracic region, T10, on postnatal-day (P)7 or P28 and the animals grew to adulthood. In P7-injured animals regrown supraspinal and propriospinal axons through the injury site were demonstrated using retrograde axonal labelling. These animals recovered near-normal coordinated overground locomotion, but with altered gait characteristics including foot placement phase lags. In P28-injured animals no axonal regrowth through the injury site could be demonstrated yet they were able to perform weight-supporting hindlimb stepping overground and on the treadmill. When placed in an environment of reduced sensory feedback (swimming) P7-injured animals swam using their hindlimbs, suggesting that the axons that grew across the lesion made functional connections; P28-injured animals swam using their forelimbs only, suggesting that their overground hindlimb movements were reflex-dependent and thus likely to be generated locally in the lumbar spinal cord. Modifications to propriospinal circuitry in P7- and P28-injured opossums were demonstrated by changes in the number of fluorescently labelled neurons detected in the lumbar cord following tracer studies and changes in the balance of excitatory, inhibitory and neuromodulatory neurotransmitter receptors' gene expression shown by qRT-PCR. These results are discussed in the context of studies indicating that although following injury the isolated segment of the spinal cord retains some capability of rhythmic movement the mechanisms involved in weight-bearing locomotion are distinct. © 2013 Wheaton et al.
Wheaton, B. J., Noor, N. M., Whish, S. C., Truettner, J. S., Dietrich, W. D., Zhang, M., … Saunders, N. R. (2013). Weight-Bearing Locomotion in the Developing Opossum, Monodelphis domestica following Spinal Transection: Remodeling of Neuronal Circuits Caudal to Lesion. PLoS ONE, 8(8). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0071181