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Spinal cord injuries can be devastating, resulting in paralysis, loss of sensation, disruption of body functions and permanent disability.

There are 350-400 new cases of spinal cord injury in Australia every year. Spinal cord injuries are often a result of trauma such as experienced in motor vehicle accidents, sports injuries and falls, and are seen most frequently in young men aged between 15-24 years. Spinal cord injuries can also have non-traumatic causes, such as arthritis, disc degeneration or other diseases such as cancer.

Our research ranges from development of preventative strategies to studies of treatments that improve the health and capacity of spinal patients.


The spinal cord is part of the central nervous system, carrying messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

If the nerve fibres that make up your spinal cord are damaged, the function of part or all of the muscles and nerves that connect to the spinal cord below that site may be impaired.

For example, if the injury site is at the level of your chest or lower, your abdomen, legs, bowel and bladder function may be affected. If the injury occurs near the top of the neck, your arms and your ability to breathe and cough may be affected.

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About our research 

Spinal cord injury research at Neuroscience Research Australia covers a large area. Here are several of our current research projects.

How the spinal cord responds to mechanical force

Prof Lynne Bilston's team is studying how mechanical forces affect the tissues of the human nervous system, including the spinal cord and peripheral nerves. Recent work has shown that the differences in spinal cord injury incidence and severity between adults and children are influenced by differences in spinal column flexibility and in how spinal cord tissues respond to mechanical loading.

Control of coughing in spinal cord injury

Respiratory complications are the major cause of death for people with spinal cord injuries. Due to paralysis of the abdominal muscles, people with high level spinal cord injury have a reduced ability to cough and to clear secretions from the lungs, which can lead to infection.

Dr Jane Butler and Prof Simon Gandevia are looking at ways to improve coughing in people with spinal cord injury using electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles. The team has already shown that this type of stimulation can improve coughing significantly and is now looking to improve coughing through muscle training as well as ways to develop a portable stimulator that would allow independent activation of a cough.

Nerve dysfunction after spinal cord injury

Prof Matthew Kiernan's team is using nerve excitability testing in spinal cord injury patients to investigate the complex changes in nerve excitability that occur over time after the injury, including the mechanisms underlying the processes involved in nerve dysfunction.

Muscle control after spinal cord injury

Surveys have shown that people living with a spinal cord injury list improved hand control second only to bladder and bowel control.

Dr Penelope McNulty's team is undertaking studies to understand how muscles change after spinal cord injury and how the voluntary control of these muscles can be improved with rehabilitation. The goal is to increase the ability of people with a spinal cord injury to look after themselves.

We are also developing a tool that will allow us to identify the potential for the recovery of voluntary movement control after spinal cord injury. The difference between stimuli delivered to the muscle and to the brain will identify whether there are intact connections between the brain and the muscle that patients cannot yet activate during voluntary movements. The presence of such connections signifies that further recovery is possible.

Mapping the spinal cord

Prof George Paxinos is currently completing atlases of the rat and mouse spinal cord. We are using the distribution of chemicals (immunohistochemistry) to find those neurons in the spinal cord which animate muscles or control the autonomic system. We have also commenced our work on the human spinal cord, establishing the areas that correspond with the cord of experimental animals.

Immune reactions within the nervous system after nerve and spinal cord injury

Prof Elspeth McLachlan is studying changes in the nervous system that follow injury to or disease of peripheral nerves and the spinal cord. We focus on the recruitment and activation of immune cells to sites remote from the injury and the consequences for other nerve pathways. Whether the immune cells are beneficial or detrimental is not known, but we are currently testing the link between immune cell activation and the progressive death of injured nerve cells.

Use of video games in rehabilitation after spinal cord injury

Dr Stuart Smith is using video games to aid with rehabilitation in patients with spinal cord injury. Watch a video about his research project here.