Long-term optical imaging of the spinal cord in awake, behaving animals

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Advances in optical imaging approaches and fluorescent biosensors have enabled an understanding of the spatiotemporal and long-term neural dynamics in the brain of awake animals. However, methodological difficulties and the persistence of post-laminectomy fibrosis have greatly limited similar advances in the spinal cord. To overcome these technical obstacles, we combined in vivo application of fluoropolymer membranes that inhibit fibrosis; a redesigned, cost-effective implantable spinal imaging chamber; and improved motion correction methods that together permit imaging of the spinal cord in awake, behaving mice, for months to over a year. We also demonstrate a robust ability to monitor axons, identify a spinal cord somatotopic map, conduct Ca 2+ imaging of neural dynamics in behaving animals responding to pain-provoking stimuli, and observe persistent microglial changes after nerve injury. The ability to couple neural activity and behavior at the spinal cord level will drive insights not previously possible at a key location for somatosensory transmission to the brain.

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