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PLoS One. 2016 Dec 1;11(12):e0167317. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0167317. eCollection 2016.

Continuous Descending Modulation of the Spinal Cord Revealed by Functional MRI.

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Centre for Neuroscience Studies, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Physics, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Dept of Radiology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Psychology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Department of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, United States of America.


Spontaneous variations in spinal cord activity may arise from regulation of any of a number of functions including sensory, motor, and autonomic control. Here, we use functional MRI (fMRI) of healthy participants to identify properties of blood oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) variations in the spinal cord in response to knowledge that either a noxious stimulus is impending, or that no stimulus is to be expected. Expectation of a noxious stimulus, or no stimulus, is shown to have a significant effect on wide-spread BOLD signal variations in the spinal cord over the entire time period of the fMRI acquisition. Coordination of BOLD responses between/within spinal cord and brainstem regions are also influenced by this knowledge. We provide evidence that such signal variations are the result of continuous descending modulation of spinal cord function. BOLD signal variations in response to noxious stimulation of the hand are also shown, as in previous studies. The observation of both continuous and reactive BOLD responses to emotional/cognitive factors and noxious peripheral stimulation may have important implications, not only for our understanding of endogenous pain modulation, but also in showing that spinal cord activity is under continuous regulatory control.

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