Brain, Mar 2015

Human spinal locomotor control is based on flexibly organized burst generators.

Danner SM, Hofstoetter US, Freundl B, Binder H, Mayr W, Rattay F, Minassian K


Constant drive provided to the human lumbar spinal cord by epidural electrical stimulation can cause local neural circuits to generate rhythmic motor outputs to lower limb muscles in people paralysed by spinal cord injury. Epidural spinal cord stimulation thus allows the study of spinal rhythm and pattern generating circuits without their configuration by volitional motor tasks or task-specific peripheral feedback. To reveal spinal locomotor control principles, we studied the repertoire of rhythmic patterns that can be generated by the functionally isolated human lumbar spinal cord, detected as electromyographic activity from the legs, and investigated basic temporal components shared across these patterns. Ten subjects with chronic, motor-complete spinal cord injury were studied. Surface electromyographic responses to lumbar spinal cord stimulation were collected from quadriceps, hamstrings, tibialis anterior, and triceps surae in the supine position. From these data, 10-s segments of rhythmic activity present in the four muscle groups of one limb were extracted. Such samples were found in seven subjects. Physiologically adequate cycle durations and relative extension- and flexion-phase durations similar to those needed for locomotion were generated. The multi-muscle activation patterns exhibited a variety of coactivation, mixed-synergy and locomotor-like configurations. Statistical decomposition of the electromyographic data across subjects, muscles and samples of rhythmic patterns identified three common temporal components, i.e. basic or shared activation patterns. Two of these basic patterns controlled muscles to contract either synchronously or alternatingly during extension- and flexion-like phases. The third basic pattern contributed to the observed muscle activities independently from these extensor- and flexor-related basic patterns. Each bifunctional muscle group was able to express both extensor- and flexor-patterns, with variable ratios across the samples of rhythmic patterns. The basic activation patterns can be interpreted as central drives implemented by spinal burst generators that impose specific spatiotemporally organized activation on the lumbosacral motor neuron pools. Our data thus imply that the human lumbar spinal cord circuits can form burst-generating elements that flexibly combine to obtain a wide range of locomotor outputs from a constant, repetitive input. It may be possible to use this flexibility to incorporate specific adaptations to gait and stance to improve locomotor control, even after severe central nervous system damage.

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