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Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

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Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

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Motor Control Centers in the Brainstem: Upper Motor Neurons That Maintain Balance and Posture

As described in Chapter 14, the vestibular nuclei are the major destination of the axons that form the vestibular division of the eighth cranial nerve; as such, they receive sensory information from the semicircular canals and the otolith organs that specifies the position and angular acceleration of the head. Many of the cells in the vestibular nuclei that receive this information are upper motor neurons with descending axons that terminate in the medial region of the spinal cord gray matter, although some extend more laterally to contact the neurons that control the proximal muscles of the limbs. The projections from the vestibular nuclei that control axial muscles and those that influence proximal limb muscles originate from different cells and take different routes (called the medial and lateral vestibulospinal tracts).

The reticular formation is a complicated network of circuits located in the core of the brainstem and extending from the rostral midbrain to the caudal medulla (Figure 17.3). Unlike the well-defined sensory and motor nuclei of the cranial nerves, the reticular formation comprises clusters of neurons scattered among a welter of interdigitating axon bundles; it is therefore difficult to subdivide anatomically. The neurons within the reticular formation have a variety of functions, including cardiovascular and respiratory control (see Chapter 21), governance of myriad sensory motor reflexes (see Chapter 16), the organization of eye movements (see Chapter 20), regulation of sleep and wakefulness (see Chapter 28), and, most important for present purposes, motor control. The descending motor control pathways from the reticular formation to the spinal cord are similar to those of the vestibular nuclei: They terminate primarily in the medial parts of the gray matter where they influence the local circuit neurons that coordinate axial and proximal limb muscles (see Figure 17.2).

Figure 17.3. The location of the reticular formation in relation to some other major landmarks at different levels of the brainstem.

Figure 17.3

The location of the reticular formation in relation to some other major landmarks at different levels of the brainstem. Neurons in the reticular formation are scattered among the axon bundles that course through the medial portion of the midbrain, pons, (more...)

Both the vestibular nuclei and the reticular formation provide information to the spinal cord that maintains posture in response to environmental (or self-induced) disturbances of body position and stability. As expected, the vestibular nuclei make adjustments in posture and equilibrium in response to information from the inner ear. Direct projections from the vestibular nuclei to the spinal cord ensure a rapid compensatory response to any postural instability detected by the inner ear (see Chapter 14). In contrast, the motor centers in the reticular formation are controlled largely by other motor centers in the cortex or brainstem. The relevant neurons in the reticular formation initiate adjustments that stabilize posture during ongoing movements.

The way the upper motor neurons of the reticular formation maintain posture can be appreciated by analyzing their activity during voluntary movements. Even the simplest movements are accompanied by the activation of muscles that at first glance seem to have little to do with the primary purpose of the movement. For example, Figure 17.4 shows the pattern of muscle activity that occurs as a subject uses his arm to pull on a handle in response to an auditory tone. Activity in the biceps muscle begins about 200 ms after the tone. However, as the records show, the contraction of the biceps is accompanied by a significant increase in the activity of a proximal leg muscle, the gastrocnemius (as well as many other muscles not monitored in the experiment). In fact, contraction of the gastrocnemius muscle begins well before contraction of the biceps.

Figure 17.4. Anticipatory maintenance of body posture.

Figure 17.4

Anticipatory maintenance of body posture. At the onset of a tone, the subject pulls on a handle, contracting the biceps muscle. To ensure postural stability, contraction of the gastrocnemius muscle precedes that of the biceps.

These observations show that postural control entails an anticipatory, or feedforward, mechanism (Figure 17.5). As part of the motor plan for moving the arm, the effect of the impending movement on body stability is “evaluated” and used to generate a change in the activity of the gastrocnemius muscle. This change actually precedes and provides postural support for the movement of the arm. In the example given here, contraction of the biceps would tend to pull the entire body forward, an action that is opposed by the contraction of the gastrocnemius muscle. In short, this feedforward mechanism “predicts” the resulting disturbance in body stability and generates an appropriate stabilizing response.

Figure 17.5. Feedforward and feedback mechanisms of postural control.

Figure 17.5

Feedforward and feedback mechanisms of postural control. Feedforward postural responses are “preprogrammed” and typically precede the onset of limb movement (see Figure 17.4). Feedback responses are initiated by sensory inputs that detect (more...)

The importance of the reticular formation for feedforward mechanisms of postural control has been explored in more detail in cats trained to use a forepaw to strike an object. As expected, the forepaw movement is accompanied by feedforward postural adjustments in the other legs to maintain the animal upright. These adjustments shift the animal's weight from an even distribution over all four feet to a diagonal pattern, in which the weight is carried mostly by the contralateral, nonreaching forelimb and the ipsilateral hindlimb. Lifting of the forepaw and postural adjustments in the other limbs can also be induced in an alert cat by electrical stimulation of the motor cortex. After pharmacological inactivation of the reticular formation, however, electrical stimulation of the motor cortex evokes only the forepaw movement, without the feedforward postural adjustments that normally accompany them.

The results of this experiment can be understood in terms of the fact that the upper motor neurons in the motor cortex influence the spinal cord circuits by two routes: direct projections to the spinal cord and indirect projections to brainstem centers under consideration here that in turn project to the spinal cord (Figure 17.6). The reticular formation is one of the major destinations of these latter projections from the motor cortex; thus, cortical upper motor neurons initiate both the reaching movement of the forepaw and also the postural adjustments in the other limbs necessary to maintain body stability. The forepaw movement is initiated by the direct pathway from the cortex to the spinal cord (and possibly by the red nucleus as well), whereas the postural adjustments are mediated via pathways from the motor cortex that reach the spinal cord indirectly, after an intervening relay in the reticular formation (the corticoreticulospinal pathway).

Figure 17.6. Direct and indirect pathways from the motor cortex to the lateral (A) and medial (B) gray matter of the spinal cord.

Figure 17.6

Direct and indirect pathways from the motor cortex to the lateral (A) and medial (B) gray matter of the spinal cord. Neurons in the motor cortex that supply the lateral part of the ventral horn also terminate on neurons in the red nucleus. Neurons in (more...)

Further evidence for the contrasting functions of the direct and indirect pathways from the motor cortex and brainstem to the spinal cord has come from experiments carried out by the Dutch neurobiologist Hans Kuypers, who examined the behavior of rhesus monkeys that had the direct pathway transected at the level of the medulla, leaving the indirect descending upper motor neuron pathways to the spinal cord via the brainstem centers intact. Immediately after the surgery, the animals were able to use axial and proximal muscles to stand, walk, run, and climb, but they had great difficulty using the distal parts of their limbs (especially their hands) independently of other body movements. For example, the monkeys could cling to the cage but were unable to reach toward and pick up food with their fingers; rather, they used the entire arm to sweep the food toward them. After several weeks, the animals recovered some independent use of their hands and were again able to pick up objects of interest, but this action still involved the concerted closure of all of the fingers. The ability to make independent, fractionated movements of the fingers, as in opposing the movements of the fingers and thumb to pick up an object, never returned. These observations show that following damage to the direct corticospinal pathway at the level of the medulla, the indirect projections from the motor cortex via the brainstem centers (or from brainstem centers alone) are capable of sustaining motor behavior that involves primarily the use of proximal muscles. In contrast, the direct projections from the motor cortex to the spinal cord enable the speed and agility of movements, providing a higher degree of precision in fractionated finger movements than is possible using the indirect pathways alone.

Selective damage to the corticospinal tract (i.e., the direct pathway) in humans is rarely seen in the clinic. Nonetheless, this evidence in nonhuman primates showing that direct projections from the cortex to the spinal cord are essential for the performance of discrete finger movements helps explain the limited recovery in humans after damage to the motor cortex or to the internal capsule. Immediately after such an injury, such patients are typically paralyzed. With time, however, some ability to perform voluntary movements reappears. These movements, which are presumably mediated by the brainstem centers, are crude for the most part, and the ability to perform discrete finger movements such as those required for writing, typing, or buttoning typically remains impaired.

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By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2001, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
Bookshelf ID: NBK11081

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