Partly shared spinal cord networks for locomotion and scratching

Ari Berkowitz, Zhao-Zhe Hao
Integrative and Comparative Biology 2011, 51 (6): 890-902
Animals produce a variety of behaviors using a limited number of muscles and motor neurons. Rhythmic behaviors are often generated in basic form by networks of neurons within the central nervous system, or central pattern generators (CPGs). It is known from several invertebrates that different rhythmic behaviors involving the same muscles and motor neurons can be generated by a single CPG, multiple separate CPGs, or partly overlapping CPGs. Much less is known about how vertebrates generate multiple, rhythmic behaviors involving the same muscles. The spinal cord of limbed vertebrates contains CPGs for locomotion and multiple forms of scratching. We investigated the extent of sharing of CPGs for hind limb locomotion and for scratching. We used the spinal cord of adult red-eared turtles. Animals were immobilized to remove movement-related sensory feedback and were spinally transected to remove input from the brain. We took two approaches. First, we monitored individual spinal cord interneurons (i.e., neurons that are in between sensory neurons and motor neurons) during generation of each kind of rhythmic output of motor neurons (i.e., each motor pattern). Many spinal cord interneurons were rhythmically activated during the motor patterns for forward swimming and all three forms of scratching. Some of these scratch/swim interneurons had physiological and morphological properties consistent with their playing a role in the generation of motor patterns for all of these rhythmic behaviors. Other spinal cord interneurons, however, were rhythmically activated during scratching motor patterns but inhibited during swimming motor patterns. Thus, locomotion and scratching may be generated by partly shared spinal cord CPGs. Second, we delivered swim-evoking and scratch-evoking stimuli simultaneously and monitored the resulting motor patterns. Simultaneous stimulation could cause interactions of scratch inputs with subthreshold swim inputs to produce normal swimming, acceleration of the swimming rhythm, scratch-swim hybrid cycles, or complete cessation of the rhythm. The type of effect obtained depended on the level of swim-evoking stimulation. These effects suggest that swim-evoking and scratch-evoking inputs can interact strongly in the spinal cord to modify the rhythm and pattern of motor output. Collectively, the single-neuron recordings and the results of simultaneous stimulation suggest that important elements of the generation of rhythms and patterns are shared between locomotion and scratching in limbed vertebrates.

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