Efficacy and time course of acute intermittent hypoxia effects in the upper extremities of people with cervical spinal cord injury

Milap S. Sandhu*, Monica A. Perez, Martin Oudega, Gordon S. Mitchell, William Z. Rymer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Spinal cord injuries (SCI) disrupt neural pathways between the brain and spinal cord, causing impairment of motor function and loss of independent mobility. Spontaneous plasticity in spared neural pathways improves function but is often insufficient to restore normal function. One unique approach to augment plasticity in spinal synaptic pathways is acute intermittent hypoxia (AIH), meaning brief exposure to mild bouts of low oxygen, interspersed with normoxia. While the administration of AIH elicits rapid plasticity and enhances volitional somatic motor output in the lower-limbs of people with incomplete SCI, it is not known if AIH-induced neuroplasticity is equally prevalent in spinal motor pathways regulating upper-extremity motor-function. In addition, how long the motor effects are retained following AIH has not yet been established. The goal of this research was to investigate changes in hand strength and upper-limb function elicited by episodic hypoxia, and to establish how long these effects were sustained in persons with incomplete cervical SCI. We conducted a randomized, blinded, placebo-controlled and cross-over design study consisting of a single AIH or sham AIH session in 14 individuals with chronic, incomplete cervical SCI. In a subset of six participants, we also performed a second protocol to determine the cumulative effects of repetitive AIH (i.e., two consecutive days). In both protocols, hand dynamometry and clinical performance tests were performed pre- and post-exposure. We found that a single AIH session enhanced bilateral grip and pinch strength, and that this effect peaked ~3 h post-intervention. The strength change was substantially higher after AIH versus sham AIH. These findings demonstrate the potential of AIH to improve upper-extremity function in persons with chronic SCI, although follow-up studies are needed to investigate optimal dosage and duration of effect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number113722
JournalExperimental Neurology
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • Acute intermittent hypoxia
  • Plasticity
  • Rehabilitation
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Strength
  • Upper limb function

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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