The pharmacology of vertebrate spinal central pattern generators

Neuroscientist. 2003 Jun;9(3):217-28. doi: 10.1177/1073858403009003014.


Central pattern generators are networks of neurons capable of generating an output pattern of spike activity in a relatively stereotyped, rhythmic pattern that has been found to underlie vital functions like respiration and locomotion. The central pattern generator for locomotion in vertebrates seems to share some basic building blocks. Activation and excitation of activity is driven by descending, sensory, and intraspinal glutamatergic neurons. NMDA receptor activation may also lead to the activation of oscillatory properties in individual neurons that depend on an array of ion channels situated in those neurons. Coordination across joints or the midline of the animal is driven primarily by glycinergic inhibition. In addition to these processes, numerous modulatory mechanisms alter the function of the central pattern generator. These include metabotropic amino acid receptors activated by rhythmic release of glutamate and GABA as well as monoamines, ACh, and peptides. Function and stability of the central pattern generator is also critically dependent on the array of ion channels found in neurons that compose these oscillators, including Ca2+ and voltage-gated K+ channels and Ca2+ channels.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Calcium Signaling
  • Ion Channels / physiology
  • Locomotion / physiology
  • Membrane Potentials / physiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Periodicity
  • Pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Biogenic Amine / physiology
  • Receptors, Metabotropic Glutamate / physiology
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / physiology
  • Respiration
  • Spinal Cord / cytology
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Vertebrates


  • Ion Channels
  • Receptors, Biogenic Amine
  • Receptors, Metabotropic Glutamate
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Calcium