Role of the motor cortex in the control of visually triggered gait modifications

T Drew, W Jiang, B Kably, S Lavoie
Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 1996, 74 (4): 426-42
One important aspect of locomotor control is the ability of an animal to make anticipatory gait modifications to avoid obstacles, by stepping either around them or over them. This paper reviews some of the evidence that suggests that the motor cortex is one of the principal structures involved in the control of such anticipatory gait modifications in cats, in particular when they are triggered by a visual signal. Evidence for this statement is provided both from experiments in which the motor cortex has been lesioned or inactivated and from studies in which the activity of motor cortical neurones has been recorded during locomotor tasks in which visual information is required to ensure the correct positioning of the paw or an appropriate modification of the limb trajectory. Inactivation of small regions of the motor cortex with the GABA agonist muscimol results in changes in the limb trajectory so that cats hit an obstacle instead of stepping over it as they do normally. A similar disruption of the hindlimb trajectory is seen following lesions of the spinal cord at T13 that interrupt the corticospinal tract. The results from cell recording studies are complementary in that they show that the activity of many identified pyramidal tract neurones increases when the cat is required to modify the forelimb or hindlimb trajectory to step over obstacles. We suggest that the major function of this increased discharge frequency is to regulate the amplitude, duration, and temporal pattern of muscle activity during the gait modification to ensure an appropriate modification of limb trajectory. We further suggest that different groups of pyramidal tract neurones are involved in regulating the activity of groups of synergistic muscles active at different times in the gait modification. For example, some groups of pyramidal tract neurones would be involved in ensuring the appropriate and sequential activation of the muscle groups involved in the initial flexion of the elbow, while others would be active prior to the repositioning of the paw on the support surface. We discuss the possibility that the motor cortical activity seen during locomotion is the sum result of a feedforward signal, which provides visuospatial information about the environment, and feedback activity, which signals, in part, the state of the interneuronal pattern generating networks in the spinal cord. The way in which the resulting descending command may interact with the basic locomotor rhythm to produce the gait modifications is discussed.

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