The spinal cord is much like a telephone exchange, receiving information from a multitude of channels, which must be preserved and processed before they can be directed to appropriate destinations. We know that in spinal cord injury those lines of communication are severed, halting the transmission of vital information and causing a loss of sensation and movement below the injury site. In chronic pain, these communication lines can become crossed and information is redirected to inappropriate destinations with the potential to make a gentle touch cause excruciating pain. Similarly, many movement disorders can be likened to a situation where communication lines are either crossed or broken with the consequence being a loss of smooth, efficient, coordinated movement.
In our efforts to understand and treat this range of spinally-based conditions, knowledge about how the lines of communication in this region are connected normally is critical if we are to repair and rewire them after damage. This is a task that has long been considered too immense given the sheer number of different nerve cell types that are interconnected in spinal cord networks, and the lack of anatomical organisation – ie, unlike a telephone exchange where wires and cables are organised in a roughly ordered manner, the connections of the spinal cord are intermingled in a chaotic and disorganised mosaic. Fortunately, a number of recent scientific breakthroughs have now given us tools to understand how spinal networks are connected and disconnected by disease and injury.
Our laboratory includes a brain tissue slicing station, two state of the art in vitro electrophysiology setups, a dedicated laser stimulating and uncaging (LASU) setup, an in vivo electrophysiology setup, and a behavioural testing facility for assessing sensory thresholds and pain in rodents. Experiments span from single channel analysis of individual receptor properties, to synaptic and intrinsic membrane properties of neurons using in vitro CNS slice preparations, and also whole animal in vivo studies of single neuron properties, and responses to natural stimuli.