Behavioral evidence reveals that the laboratory rat and other rodent species display skilled paw and digit use in handling food during eating and skilled limb use in reaching for food in formal laboratory skilled reaching tests that is comparable to that described in carnivores and primates. Because less is known about the central control of skilled movements in rodents than in carnivores or primates, the purpose of the current study was to examine the relation between the rat's spinal motoneurons and the individual forelimb muscles that they innervate. In two experiments, 14 forelimb muscles (in the shoulder and the upper and lower arm segments) were injected with carbocyanine dye tracers. The topography of spinal motoneurons was reconstructed by using fluorescence microscopy. Motor neurons were found to be organized in columns throughout the length of the cervical and upper thoracic area, with 1) extensor motoneurons located more laterally than flexor motoneurons, 2) rostral motoneurons innervating more proximal muscles than caudal motoneurons, and 3) more dorsally located motoneurons innervating more distal muscles. These results reveal that the topography of rodent cervical spinal cord motoneurons is very similar to that of carnivores and of primates, which also are characterized by well-developed, skilled movements. In addition, the proximal-distal organization of motoneuron columns parallels the proximal-to-distal pattern of forelimb movement used by the rat when reaching. The data from this study enable the development of predictions about the specific movements that would be compromised by experimental transections or other injuries at different levels of the spinal cord in rat models of spinal injury.
Copyright 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.