The Role of the Spinal Cord in Emotional Responses

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Last updated: August 2015

The Research Project

My colleagues and I are using functional MRI of the spinal cord to examine whether emotion influences activity in motoric and somatosensory regions of this CNS structure. Using this state-of-the-art neuroimaging method, we have been able to demonstrate that emotional images increase cervical spinal cord responses during movements (Smith & Kornelsen, 2011). This emotion-dependent activity appears to be limb-specific emotional images depicting scenes involving upper-limb responses activate the cervical spinal cord (which innervates the upper limbs) more than do scenes involving lower-limb responses (McIver et al., 2013). Recently, we showed that emotions influence activity in the thoracic spinal cord, the region in the middle of the chest and abdomen (Kornelsen et al., 2014, 2015). These spinal cord segments have sensory and motoric (movement) functions, but are also involved with a number of autonomic nervous system responses (e.g., pupil dilation, stimulating glands that secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine). Ongoing studies will attempt to link activity in the spinal cord with activity in different brain regions, thus providing a detailed depiction of how the central nervous system is involved in various emotional behaviours. We hope to complement this neuroimaging work with studies of individuals who have experienced injuries to the spinal cord.

Lab Publications on this Topic

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  • Kolesar, T. A., Feist, K. M., Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (2015). Assessing nociception by fMRI of the human spinal cord: A systematic review. Magnetic Resonance Insights, 8(S1), 31-39. PDF

  • Kornelsen, J., Smith, S. D., & McIver, T. A. (2015). A neural correlate of visceral emotional responses: Evidence from fMRI of the thoracic spinal cord. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 10, 584-588. PDF

  • McIver, T. A., Kornelsen, J., & Smith, S. D. (2013). Limb-specific emotional modulation of cervical spinal cord neurons. Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 13, 464-472. PDF

  • Kornelsen, J., Smith, S. D., McIver, T. A., Sboto-Frankenstein, Latta, P., Yin, D., & Tomanek, B. (2013). Detection of sensory stimulation in the thoracic spinal cord using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PDF

  • Salter, J. E., Smith, S. D., & Ethans, K. D. (2013). Positive and negative affect in individuals with spinal cord injuries. Spinal Cord, 51, 252-256. PDF

  • Smith, S. D., & Kornelsen, J. (2011). Emotion-dependent responses in spinal cord neurons: A spinal fMRI study. NeuroImage, 58, 269-274. PDF

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