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J Neurophysiol. 2012 Jun;107(12):3267-80. doi: 10.1152/jn.01124.2011. Epub 2012 Mar 7.

A neuromechanical model explaining forward and backward stepping in the stick insect.

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Emmy-Noether Research Group, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany.


The mechanism underlying the generation of stepping has been the object of intensive studies. Stepping involves the coordinated movement of different leg joints and is, in the case of insects, produced by antagonistic muscle pairs. In the stick insect, the coordinated actions of three such antagonistic muscle pairs produce leg movements and determine the stepping pattern of the limb. The activity of the muscles is controlled by the nervous system as a whole and more specifically by local neuronal networks for each muscle pair. While many basic properties of these control mechanisms have been uncovered, some important details of their interactions in various physiological conditions have so far remained unknown. In this study, we present a neuromechanical model of the coupled protractor-retractor and levator-depressor neuromuscular systems and use it to elucidate details of their coordinated actions during forward and backward walking. The switch from protraction to retraction is evoked at a critical angle of the femur during downward movement. This angle represents a sensory input that integrates load, motion, and ground contact. Using the model, we can make detailed suggestions as to how rhythmic stepping might be generated by the central pattern generators of the local neuronal networks, how this activity might be transmitted to the corresponding motoneurons, and how the latter might control the activity of the related muscles. The entirety of these processes yields the coordinated interaction between neuronal and mechanical parts of the system. Moreover, we put forward a mechanism by which motoneuron activity could be modified by a premotor network and suggest that this mechanism might serve as a basis for fast adaptive behavior, like switches between forward and backward stepping, which occur, for example, during curve walking, and especially sharp turning, of insects.

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