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J Neurophysiol. 1998 Mar;79(3):1329-40.

Locomotor capacity attributable to step training versus spontaneous recovery after spinalization in adult cats.

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Department of Physiological Science, UCLA, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.


Locomotor performance, hindlimb muscle activity and gait patterns during stepping were studied in step-trained and non-trained female, adult spinal cats. Changes in locomotor characteristics relative to prespinalization bipedal and quadrupedal stepping patterns were used to evaluate the effects of step training on the capacity to execute full weight-bearing stepping after spinalization. Step training consisted of full weight-bearing stepping of the hindlimbs at the greatest range of treadmill speeds possible at any given stage of locomotor recovery. In the initial stages of training the limbs were assisted as needed to execute successful steps. On the basis of two behavioral criteria, the maximum speed of treadmill stepping and the number of successful steps per unit time, the ability to step was at least 3 times greater in animals trained to step versus those allowed to recover spontaneously, i.e., the non-trained. The greater success in stepping was reflected in several physiological and kinematic properties. For example, the amplitude of electromyograph (EMG) bursts in the tibialis anterior (an ankle dorsiflexor), the amount of extension at the end of both the stance (E3) and swing (E1) phases of the step cycle, and the amount of lift of the hindlimb during swing were greater in step-trained than in non-trained spinal cats. The changes that occurred in response to training reflected functional adaptations at specific phases of the step cycle, e.g., enhanced flexor and extensor function. The improved stepping capacity attributable to step training is interpreted as a change in the probability of the appropriate neurons being activated in a temporally appropriate manner. This interpretation, in turn, suggests that step training facilitated or reinforced the function of extant sensorimotor pathways rather than promoting the generation of additional pathways. These results show that the capacity of the adult lumbar spinal cord to generate full weight-bearing stepping over a range of speeds is defined, in large part, by the functional experience of the spinal cord after supraspinal connectivity has been eliminated. These results have obvious implications with regards to 1) the possibility of motor learning occurring in the spinal cord; 2) the importance of considering "motor experience" in assessing the effect of any postspinalization intervention; and 3) the utilization of use-dependent interventions in facilitating and enhancing motor recovery.

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