Spinal cord injury is a devastating medical condition. Recent developments in pre-clinical and clinical research have started to yield neural implants inducing functional recovery after spinal cord transection injury. However, the functional performance of the transplants was assessed using histology and behavioral experiments which are unable to study cell dynamics and the therapeutic response. Here, we use neurophotonic tools and optogenetic probes to investigate cellular level morphology and activity characteristics of neural implants over time at the cellular level. These methods were used in-vitro and in-vivo, in a mouse spinal cord injury implant model.
Following previous attempts to induce recovery after spinal cord injury, we engineered a pre-vascularized implant to obtain better functional performance. To image network activity of a construct implanted in a mouse spinal cord, we transfected the implant to express GCaMP6 calcium activity indicators and implanted these constructs under a spinal cord chamber enabling 2-photon chronic in vivo neural activity imaging. Activity and morphology analysis image processing software was developed to automatically quantify the behavior of the neural and vascular networks. Our experimental results and analyses demonstrate that vascularized and non-vascularized constructs exhibit very different morphologic and activity patterns at the cellular level. This work enables further optimization of neural implants and also provides valuable tools for continuous cellular level monitoring and evaluation of transplants designed for various neurodegenerative disease models.