The dorsal column lesion model of spinal cord injury and its use in deciphering the neuron-intrinsic injury response

Callan L. Attwell, Mike van Zwieten, Joost Verhaagen*, Matthew R.J. Mason

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The neuron-intrinsic response to axonal injury differs markedly between neurons of the peripheral and central nervous system. Following a peripheral lesion, a robust axonal growth program is initiated, whereas neurons of the central nervous system do not mount an effective regenerative response. Increasing the neuron-intrinsic regenerative response would therefore be one way to promote axonal regeneration in the injured central nervous system. The large-diameter sensory neurons located in the dorsal root ganglia are pseudo-unipolar neurons that project one axon branch into the spinal cord, and, via the dorsal column to the brain stem, and a peripheral process to the muscles and skin. Dorsal root ganglion neurons are ideally suited to study the neuron-intrinsic injury response because they exhibit a successful growth response following peripheral axotomy, while they fail to do so after a lesion of the central branch in the dorsal column. The dorsal column injury model allows the neuron-intrinsic regeneration response to be studied in the context of a spinal cord injury. Here we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this model. We describe the surgical methods used to implement a lesion of the ascending fibers, the anatomy of the sensory afferent pathways and anatomical, electrophysiological, and behavioral techniques to quantify regeneration and functional recovery. Subsequently we review the results of experimental interventions in the dorsal column lesion model, with an emphasis on the molecular mechanisms that govern the neuron-intrinsic injury response and manipulations of these after central axotomy. Finally, we highlight a number of recent advances that will have an impact on the design of future studies in this spinal cord injury model, including the continued development of adeno-associated viral vectors likely to improve the genetic manipulation of dorsal root ganglion neurons and the use of tissue clearing techniques enabling 3D reconstruction of regenerating axon tracts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)926-951
Number of pages26
JournalDevelopmental Neurobiology
Issue number10
Early online date1 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018

Bibliographical note

Special Issue: The Intrinsic Regenerative Ability of Axons


  • Conditioning lesion
  • Dorsal column lesion
  • Dorsal root ganglia
  • Regeneration-associated gene program
  • Spinal cord injury


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