Functional imaging of rostrocaudal spinal activity during upper limb motor tasks.
The spinal cord is the main interface between the brain and the periphery. It notably plays a central role in motor control, as spinal motoneurons activate skeletal muscles involved in voluntary movements. Yet, the spinal mechanisms underlying human movement generation have not been completely elucidated. In this regard, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) represents a potential tool to probe spinal cord function non-invasively and with high spatial resolution. Nonetheless, a thorough characterization of this approach is still lacking, currently limiting its impact. Here, we aimed at systematically quantifying to which extent fMRI can reveal spinal cord activity along the rostrocaudal direction. We investigated changes in the blood oxygenation level dependent signal of the human cervical spinal cord during bimanual upper limb movements (wrist extension, wrist adduction and finger abduction) in nineteen healthy volunteers. Prior to scanning, we recorded the muscle activity associated with these movements in order to reconstruct the theoretical motor-pool output pattern using an anatomy-based mapping of the electromyographic (EMG) waveforms. EMG-derived spinal maps were characterized by distinct rostrocaudal patterns of activation, thus confirming the task-specific features of the different movements. Analogous activation patterns were captured using spinal cord fMRI. Finally, an additional fMRI dataset was acquired from a subset of the participants (n = 6) to deploy a multivoxel pattern analysis, which allowed successful decoding of movements. These combined results suggest that spinal cord fMRI can be used to image rostrocaudal activation patterns reflecting the underlying activity of the motoneuron pools innervating the task-related muscles. Spinal cord fMRI offers the prospect of a novel tool to study motor processes and potentially their modification following neurological motor disorders.