Muscle synergies encoded within the spinal cord: evidence from focal intraspinal NMDA iontophoresis in the frog

J Neurophysiol. 2001 Feb;85(2):605-19. doi: 10.1152/jn.2001.85.2.605.


This paper relates to the problem of the existence of muscle synergies, that is whether the CNS command to muscles is simplified by controlling their activity in subgroups or synergies, rather than individually. We approach this problem with two methods that have been recently introduced: intraspinal N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) microstimulation and a synergy-extracting algorithm. To search for a common set of synergies encoded for by the spinal cord whose combinations would account for a large range of electromyographic (EMG) patterns, we chose, rather than examining a large range of natural behaviors, to chemically microstimulate a large number of spinal cord interneuronal sites in different frogs. A possible advantage of this complementary method is that it is task-independent. Visual inspection suggested that the NMDA-elicited EMG patterns recorded from 12 leg muscles might indeed be constructed from smaller subgroups of muscles whose activity co-varied, suggestive of synergies. We used a modification of our extracting computational algorithm whereby a nonnegative least-squares method was employed to iteratively update both the synergies and their coefficients of activation in reconstructing the EMG patterns. Using this algorithm, a limited set of seven synergies was found whose linear combinations accounted for more than 91% of the variance in the pooled EMG data from 10 frogs, and more than 96% in individual frogs. The extracted synergies were similar among frogs. Further, preferred combinations of these synergies were clearly identified. This was found by extracting smaller sets of four, five, or six synergies and fitting each synergy from those sets as a combination from the set of seven synergies extracted from the same frog; the synergy combinations from each frog were then pooled together to examine their frequency of occurrence. Concordance with this method of identifying synergy combinations was found by examining how the synergies from the set of seven correlated pair-wise as they reconstructed the EMG data. These results support the existence of muscle synergies encoded within the spinal cord, which through preferred combinations, account for a large repertoire of spinal cord motor output. These findings are contrasted with previous approaches to the problem of synergies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Decerebrate State
  • Electromyography
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists / administration & dosage
  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists / pharmacology
  • Iontophoresis
  • Models, Neurological
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • N-Methylaspartate / administration & dosage
  • N-Methylaspartate / pharmacology
  • Rana catesbeiana
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Time Factors


  • Excitatory Amino Acid Agonists
  • N-Methylaspartate