Digitally altered image of a spinal nerve

Nerve and spinal cord injury


Prevention and treatment of spinal cord injuries


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.

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.

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 that 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.

Spinal Injuries Research Centre


See what’s going on at NeuRA


The RESTORE Trial: Immersive Virtual Reality Treatment for Restoring Touch Perception in People with Discomplete Paraplegia

Chief Investigators: Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, Prof James Middleton, A/Prof Zina Trost, Prof Ashley Craig, Prof Jim Elliott, Dr Negin Hesam-Shariati, Corey Shum and James Stanley While recognition of surviving pathways in complete injuries has tremendous implications for SCI rehabilitation, currently no effective treatments exist to promote or restore touch perception among those with discomplete SCI. The proposed study will address this need by developing and testing a novel intervention that can provide touch restoration via the primary source of sensory perception: the brain.Complete spinal cord injury (SCI) is associated with a complete loss of function such as mobility or sensation. In a recent discovery we revealed that 50% of people with complete SCI still have surviving somatosensory nerve fibres at the level of the spine. For those with complete SCI this is hopeful news as it means -- contrary to previous belief that communication to the brain had been severed by injury -- that the brain is still receiving messages. This new SCI type is labelled “discomplete SCI” -- a SCI person who cannot feel touch, but touch information is still forwarded from the foot to the brain. The project will use virtual reality (VR) in a way it has never been used before. We will develop the first immersive VR interface that simultaneously enhances surviving spinal somatosensory nerve fibres and touch signals in the brain in an effort to restore touch perception in people with discomplete SCI. In other words, immersive VR is being used to re-train the brain to identify the distorted signals from toe to head as sensation (touch). For example, participants will receive touch simulation in the real world (e.g., their toe) while at the same time receiving corresponding multisensory touch stimuli in the virtual world (e.g., experiencing walking up to kick a ball). This project is the first effort worldwide to restore touch sensation in 50% of individuals with complete injuries. The outcomes to be achieved from the current study will represent a cultural and scientific paradigmatic shift in terms of what can be expected from life with a spinal cord injury. In addition, the project allows potential identification of brain mechanisms that may ultimately represent direct targets for acute discomplete SCI rehabilitation, including efforts to preserve rather than restore touch perception following SCI. RESTORE consolidates the expertise of scientists, clinicians, VR developers and stakeholders from NeuRA and UNSW School of Psychology (A/Prof Sylvia Gustin, Dr Negin Hesam-Shariati), John Walsh Centre for Rehabilitation Research, Kolling Institute and University of Sydney (Prof James Middleton, Prof Ashley Craig and Prof Jim Elliott), Virginia Commonwealth University (A/Prof Zina Trost), Immersive Experience Laboratories LLC (Director Corey Shum) and James Stanley. If you are interested in being contacted about the RESTORE trial, please email A/Prof Sylvia Gustin ( and include your name, phone number, address, type of SCI (e.g., complete or incomplete), level of injury (e.g., T12) and duration of SCI (e.g., 5 years).