LA JOLLAScientists at the Salk Institute have discovered the developmental source for a key type of neuron that allows animals to walk, a finding that could help pave the way for new therapies for spinal cord injuries or other motor impairments related to disease.
The spinal cord contains a network of neurons that are able to operate largely in an autonomous manner, thus allowing animals to carry out simple rhythmic walking movements with minimal attentiongiving us the ability, for example, to walk while talking on the phone. These circuits control properties such as stepping with each foot or pacing the tempo of walking or running.
The researchers, led by Salk professor Martyn Goulding, identified for the first time which neurons in the spinal cord were responsible for controlling a key output of this locomotion circuit, namely the ability to synchronously activate and deactivate opposing muscles to create a smooth bending motion (dubbed flexor-extensor alternation). The findings were published April 2 in Neuron.
Motor circuits in the spinal cord are assembled from six major types of interneuronscells that interface between nerves descending from the brain and nerves that activate or inhibit muscles. Goulding and his team had previously implicated one class of interneuron, the V1 interneurons, as being a likely key component of the flexor-extensor circuitry. However when V1 interneurons were removed, the team saw that flexor-extensor activity was still intact, leading them to suspect another type of cell was also involved in coordinating this aspect of movement.
To determine what other interneurons were at play in the flexor-extensor circuit, the team looked for other cells in the spinal cord with properties that were similar to those of the V1 neurons. In doing this they began to focus on another class of neuron, whose function was not known, V2b interneurons. Using a specialized experimental setup that allows one t
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