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A novel approach for assigning levels to monkey and human lumbosacral spinal cord based on ventral horn morphology

Gross, C;Ellison, B;Buchman, AS;Terasawa, E;VanderHorst, VG;

Proper identification of spinal cord levels is crucial for clinical-pathological and imaging studies in humans, but can be a challenge given technical limitations. We have previously demonstrated in non-primate models that the contours of the spinal ventral horn are determined by the position of motoneuron pools. These positions are preserved within and among individuals and can be used to identify lumbosacral spinal levels. Here we tested the hypothesis that this approach can be extended to identify monkey and human spinal levels. In 7 rhesus monkeys, we retrogradely labeled motoneuron pools that represent rostral, middle and caudal landmarks of the lumbosacral enlargement. We then aligned the lumbosacral enlargements among animals using absolute length, segmental level or a relative scale based upon rostral and caudal landmarks. Inter-animal matching of labeled motoneurons across the lumbosacral enlargement was most precise when using internal landmarks. We then reconstructed 3 human lumbosacral spinal cords, and aligned these based upon homologous internal landmarks. Changes in shape of the ventral horn were consistent among human subjects using this relative scale, despite marked differences in absolute length or age. These data suggest that the relative position of spinal motoneuron pools is conserved across species, including primates. Therefore, in clinical-pathological or imaging studies in humans, one can assign spinal cord levels to even single sections by matching ventral horn shape to standardized series.