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J Physiol. 2018 Aug;596(16):3469-3491. doi: 10.1113/JP275532. Epub 2018 Jul 10.

The negotiated equilibrium model of spinal cord function.

Wolpaw JR1,2,3,4.

Author information

National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies, Wadsworth Center, NYS Department of Health, Albany, NY, USA.
Department of Neurology, Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY, USA.
Department of Biomedical Sciences, School of Public Health, SUNY Albany, NY, USA.
Department of Neurology, Neurological Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.


The belief that the spinal cord is hardwired is no longer tenable. Like the rest of the CNS, the spinal cord changes during growth and ageing, when new motor behaviours are acquired, and in response to trauma and disease. This paper describes a new model of spinal cord function that reconciles its recently appreciated plasticity with its long-recognized reliability as the final common pathway for behaviour. According to this model, the substrate of each motor behaviour comprises brain and spinal plasticity: the plasticity in the brain induces and maintains the plasticity in the spinal cord. Each time a behaviour occurs, the spinal cord provides the brain with performance information that guides changes in the substrate of the behaviour. All the behaviours in the repertoire undergo this process concurrently; each repeatedly induces plasticity to preserve its key features despite the plasticity induced by other behaviours. The aggregate process is a negotiation among the behaviours: they negotiate the properties of the spinal neurons and synapses that they all use. The ongoing negotiation maintains the spinal cord in an equilibrium - a negotiated equilibrium - that serves all the behaviours. This new model of spinal cord function is supported by laboratory and clinical data, makes predictions borne out by experiment, and underlies a new approach to restoring function to people with neuromuscular disorders. Further studies are needed to test its generality, to determine whether it may apply to other CNS areas such as the cerebral cortex, and to develop its therapeutic implications.


motor learning; plasticity; spinal cord

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