Spinal cord injury causes obvious clinical deficits early in the course of lesion evolution, but it is commonly observed that recovery can occur spontaneously during a period of days, weeks or even months afterwards. Spinal cord dysfunction arises after injury because of a combination of reversible alterations in the concentration of intra- and extracellular ionic constituents and irreversible tissue destruction. Recovery can therefore occur through re-establishment of the normal microenvironment of the spinal cord, which occurs soon after injury induction, and also by formation of new patterns of central nervous system circuitry. Alterations in circuitry, termed ‘plasticity’, can occur during the immediate period after injury but apparently continue for many weeks or months. There are differences in the extent and nature of recovery between complete and incomplete experimental spinal cord injuries that illustrate the roles played by reorganisation of intra- and suprasegmental circuitry. Information that is available on mechanisms of spontaneous recovery may aid development of novel therapies for clinical spinal cord injury.
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