Document Type


Date of Award

Spring 5-31-2019

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedical Engineering - (Ph.D.)


Biomedical Engineering

First Advisor

Bharat Biswal

Second Advisor

Tara L. Alvarez

Third Advisor

Nancy D. Chiaravalloti

Fourth Advisor

Xiaobo Li

Fifth Advisor

Xin Di

Sixth Advisor

Yiyan Liu


Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) results in structural and functional neurological changes at both the brain and the level of the spinal cord. Anatomical studies indicate decreased grey matter volume in sensorimotor and non-sensorimotor regions of the cortex following SCI; whereas, neurophysiological findings mostly report altered functional activity in the sensorimotor nodes of the cortex, subcortex, and cerebellum. Therefore, it is currently unknown whether tissue atrophy observed in non-motor related areas has any concomitant functional consequences. Furthermore, the neural underpinnings of adaptive neuroplasticity after SCI is not well-defined in the current literature. Hence, this dissertation is a pioneer study investigating the structural and functional changes in the whole brain after SCI, with particular focus on subcortical regions, using a multimodal approach employing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), resting-state functional MRI (fMRI) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), that may take best advantage of each of these three tools. MRI scans from 23 healthy controls (HC) and 36 individuals with complete SCI within two years of injury were used to demonstrate that both injury level and duration since injury are important factors contributing to recovery. Specifically, cervical level injury when compared to thoracolumbar level injury exhibits a greater loss of cortical grey matter volume in the orbitofrontal cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex. Next, using the fMRI scans of the same participants during a resting-state scan, the intrinsic functional connectivity of the mediodorsal, pulvinar and ventrolateral nuclei of the thalamus to the regions of salient network and the fronto-parietal network is observed to be dynamic and altered in the SCI group. Lastly, a continuous-wave fNIRS is used to reliably measure brain function in individuals with SCI during both dynamic and static tasks while accounting for cerebrovascular reactivity. Five min of resting-state data and 26 min of motor data including finger tapping, finger tapping imagery and ankle tapping were acquired to identify the spatial activation pattern unique to each of the movement type. A breath-hold paradigm is also used to quantify cerebrovascular reactivity as a means to calibrate task activity from neurovascular constraints. Sixteen HC were scanned at two separate visits to determine the sensitivity and test-retest reliability of fNIRS data from the sensorimotor cortex. Following validation, the same procedure was repeated in 13 individuals with paraplegia resulting from SCI and 13 HC to quantify alterations in the cortical activity of the motor cortex and cerebrovascular reactivity between the two groups. Results indicate that SCI group exhibit altered cerebrovascular reactivity with greater delay in response and greater pre-stimulus undershoot. As hypothesized, the hemodynamic response to ankle movement resulted in only a small change in oxyhemoglobin concentration in the sensorimotor cortex of SCI group when compared to HC. The application of fNIRS to assess cortical reorganization following SCI is unique and expands our understanding of the neurophysiology after SCI. It paves the groundwork for extending the implementation of fNIRS to rehabilitation research and other clinical populations with vascular dysfunction. This dissertation is one of the first studies to comprehensively examine both the structural and functional alterations of the brain in humans with complete SCI and opens promising avenues for SCI research using fNIRS modality.



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