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Although the spinal cord is the output station of the central motor system, little is known about the relationships between its functional activity and willed movement parameters in humans. We investigated here blood oxygenation level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signal changes in the cervical spinal cord during a simple finger-to-thumb opposition task in 13 right-handed volunteers, using a dedicated array of 16 receive-only surface coils on a 3 Tesla MRI system. In a first experiment, we found significant fMRI signal increases on both sides of the lower cervical spinal cord while subjects performed the motor task at a comfortable pace (approximately 0.5 Hz) using either hand. Both the spatial extent of movement-related clusters and peak signal increases were significantly higher on the side of the cord ipsilateral to the moving hand than on the contralateral side. Movement-related activity was consistently larger than signal fluctuations during rest. In a second experiment, we recorded spinal cord responses while the same motor sequence was performed using the dominant hand at two different rates (approximately 0.5 or 1 Hz). The intensity but not the spatial extent of the response was larger during higher rates, and it was higher on the ipsilateral side of the cord. Notwithstanding the limited spatial resolving power of the adopted technique, the present results clearly indicate that the finger movement-related fMRI signals recorded from the spinal cord have a neural origin and that as a result of recent technological advances, fMRI can be used to obtain novel and quantitative physiological information on the activity of spinal circuits.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





4182 - 4190


Adult, Female, Fingers, Functional Laterality, Humans, Male, Motor Activity, Spinal Cord, Time Factors, Volition