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J Neurosci. 2012 Nov 28;32(48):17442-53. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3757-12.2012.

Spinal and supraspinal control of the direction of stepping during locomotion.

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Pavlov Institute of Physiology, 100034 St Petersburg, Russia.


Most bipeds and quadrupeds, in addition to forward walking, are also capable of backward and sideward walking. The direction of walking is determined by the direction of stepping movements of individual limbs in relation to the front-to-rear body axis. Our goal was to assess the functional organization of the system controlling the direction of stepping. Experiments were performed on decerebrate cats walking on the treadmill with their hindlimbs, whereas the head and trunk were rigidly fixed. Different directions of the treadmill motion relative to the body axis were used (0, ± 45, ± 90, and 180°). For each direction, we compared locomotion evoked from the brainstem (by stimulation of the mesencephalic locomotor region, MLR) with locomotion evoked by epidural stimulation of the spinal cord (SC). It was found that SC stimulation evoked well coordinated stepping movements at different treadmill directions. The direction of steps was opposite to the treadmill motion, suggesting that this direction was determined by sensory input from the limb during stance. Thus, SC stimulation activates limb controllers, which are able to generate stepping movements in different directions. By contrast, MLR stimulation evoked well coordinated stepping movements only if the treadmill was moving in the front-to-rear direction. One can conclude that supraspinal commands (caused by MLR stimulation) select one of the numerous forms of operation of the spinal limb controllers, namely, the forward walking. The MLR can thus be considered as a command center for forward locomotion, which is the main form of progression in bipeds and quadrupeds.

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