Revisiting the segmental organization of the human spinal cord

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Abstract

In classic anatomic atlases, the spinal cord is standardly represented in its anatomical form with symmetrically emerging anterior and posterior roots, which at the level of the intervertebral foramen combine into the spinal nerves. The parts of the cord delimited by the boundaries of the roots are called segments or myelomeres. Associated with their regular repetitive appearance is the notion that the cord is segmentally organized. This segmental view is reinforced by clinical practice. Spinal cord roots innervate specific body parts. The level of cord trauma is diagnosed by the de-innervation symptoms of these parts. However, systemically, the case for a segmentally organized cord is not so clear. To date, developmental and genetic research points to a regionally rather than a segmentally organized cord. In the present study, to what degree the fila radicularia are segmentally implanted along the cord was investigated. The research hypothesis was that if the fila radicularia were non-segmentally implanted at the cord surface, it would be unlikely that the internal neuron stratum would be segmented. The visual segmented aspect of the myelomeres would then be the consequence of the necessary bundling of axons towards the vertebral foramen as the only exits of the vertebral canal, rather than of an underlying segment organization of the cord itself. To investigate the research hypothesis, the fila radicularia in the cervical-upper thoracic part of five spinal cords were detached from their spinal nerves and dissected in detail. The principal research question was if the fila radicularia are separated from their spinal nerves and dissected from their connective tissues up to the cord, would it be possible to reconstruct the original spinal segments from the morphology and interspaces of the fila? The dissections revealed that the anterior fila radicularia emerge from the cord at regular regionally modulated interspaces without systematic segmental delineations. The posterior fila radicularia are somewhat more segmentally implanted, but the pattern is individually inconsistent. The posterior and anterior roots have notable morphological differences, and hypotheses are presented to help explain these. The macroscopic observations are consistent with a regionally but not a segmentally organized cord. This conclusion was visually summarized in photographs of spinal cords with ipsilateral intact roots and contralateral individually dissected fila radicularia. It was suggested that this dual view of the spinal cord be added to the standard anatomic textbooks to counterbalance the current possibly biased view of a segmented cord.

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