When hormones take a side

Hormones could mediate asymmetric motor deficits after brain injury.

Image credit: Adapted from Gil Costa (CC BY 4.0) and a photographic reproduction of De Sportlieden by Kazimir Malevich (Public Domain)

Brain trauma or a stroke often lead to severe problems in posture and movement. These injuries frequently occur only on one side, causing asymmetrical motor changes: damage to the left brain hemisphere triggers abnormal contractions of the right limbs, and vice-versa.

The injuries can disrupt neural tracts between the brain and the spinal cord, the structure that conveys electric messages to muscles. However, research has also shed light on new actors: the hormones released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. Similar to the effects of brain lesions, several of these molecules cause asymmetric posture in healthy rats. In fact, a group of hormones can trigger muscle contraction of the left back leg, and another of the right one. Could pituitary hormones mediate the asymmetric effects of brain injuries?

To investigate this question, Lukoyanov, Watanabe, Carvalho, Kononenko, Sarkisyan et al. focused on rats in which the connection between the brain and the spinal cord segments that control the hindlimbs had been surgically removed. This stopped transmission of electric messages from the brain to muscles in the back legs.

Strikingly, lesions on one side of the brain in these animals still led to asymmetric posture, with contraction of the leg on the opposite side of the body. These effects were abolished when the pituitary gland was excised. Postural asymmetry also emerged when blood serum from injured rats was injected into healthy animals. The findings suggest that hormones play an essential role in signalling from the brain to the spinal cord.

Further experiments identified that two pituitary hormones, β-endorphin and Arg-vasopressin, induced contraction of the right but not the left hindlimb of healthy animals. In addition, small molecules that inhibit these hormones could block the deficits seen on the right side after an injury on the left hemisphere of the brain. Taken together, these results show that neurons in the spinal cord are not just controlled by the neural tracts that descend from the brain, but also by hormones which have left-right side-specific actions. This unique signalling could be a part of a previously unknown hormonal mechanism that selectively targets either the left or the right side of the body. This knowledge could help to design side-specific treatments for stroke and brain trauma.