Deficient ankle control after incomplete spinal cord injury (iSCI) often accentuates walking impairments. Transcutaneous electrical spinal cord stimulation (tSCS) has been shown to augment locomotor activity after iSCI, presumably due to modulation of spinal excitability. However, the effects of possible excitability modulations induced by tSCS on ankle control have not yet been assessed. This study investigated the immediate (i.e., without training) effects during single-sessions of tonic tSCS on ankle control, spinal excitability, and locomotion in ten individuals with chronic, sensorimotor iSCI (American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale D). Participants performed rhythmic ankle movements (dorsi- and plantar flexion) at a given rate, and irregular ankle movements following a predetermined trajectory with and without tonic tSCS at 15 Hz, 30 Hz, and 50 Hz. In a subgroup of eight participants, the effects of tSCS on assisted over-ground walking were studied. Furthermore, the activity of a polysynaptic spinal reflex, associated with spinal locomotor networks, was investigated to study the effect of the stimulation on the dedicated spinal circuitry associated with locomotor function. Tonic tSCS at 30 Hz immediately improved maximum dorsiflexion by +4.6° ± 0.9° in the more affected lower limb during the rhythmic ankle movement task, resulting in an increase of +2.9° ± 0.9° in active range of motion. Coordination of ankle movements, assessed by the ability to perform rhythmic ankle movements at a given target rate and to perform irregular movements according to a trajectory, was unchanged during stimulation. tSCS at 30 Hz modulated spinal reflex activity, reflected by a significant suppression of pathological activity specific to SCI in the assessed polysynaptic spinal reflex. During walking, there was no statistical group effect of tSCS. In the subgroup of eight assessed participants, the three with the lowest as well as the one with the highest walking function scores showed positive stimulation effects, including increased maximum walking speed, or more continuous and faster stepping at a self-selected speed. Future studies need to investigate if multiple applications and individual optimization of the stimulation parameters can increase the effects of tSCS, and if the technique can improve the outcome of locomotor rehabilitation after iSCI.
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