Bimodal Respiratory-Locomotor Neurons in the Neonatal Rat Spinal Cord

J Neurosci. 2016 Jan 20;36(3):926-37. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1825-15.2016.


Neural networks that can generate rhythmic motor output in the absence of sensory feedback, commonly called central pattern generators (CPGs), are involved in many vital functions such as locomotion or respiration. In certain circumstances, these neural networks must interact to produce coordinated motor behavior adapted to environmental constraints and to satisfy the basic needs of an organism. In this context, we recently reported the existence of an ascending excitatory influence from lumbar locomotor CPG circuitry to the medullary respiratory networks that is able to depolarize neurons of the parafacial respiratory group during fictive locomotion and to subsequently induce an increased respiratory rhythmicity (Le Gal et al., 2014b). Here, using an isolated in vitro brainstem-spinal cord preparation from neonatal rat in which the respiratory and the locomotor networks remain intact, we show that during fictive locomotion induced either pharmacologically or by sacrocaudal afferent stimulation, the activity of both thoracolumbar expiratory motoneurons and interneurons is rhythmically modulated with the locomotor activity. Completely absent in spinal inspiratory cells, this rhythmic pattern is highly correlated with the hindlimb ipsilateral flexor activities. Furthermore, silencing brainstem neural circuits by pharmacological manipulation revealed that this locomotor-related drive to expiratory motoneurons is solely dependent on propriospinal pathways. Together these data provide the first evidence in the newborn rat spinal cord for the existence of bimodal respiratory-locomotor motoneurons and interneurons onto which both central efferent expiratory and locomotor drives converge, presumably facilitating the coordination between the rhythmogenic networks responsible for two different motor functions. Significance statement: In freely moving animals, distant regions of the brain and spinal cord controlling distinct motor acts must interact to produce the best adapted behavioral response to environmental constraints. In this context, it is well established that locomotion and respiration must to be tightly coordinated to reduce muscular interferences and facilitate breathing rate acceleration during exercise. Here, using electrophysiological recordings in an isolated in vitro brainstem-spinal cord preparation from neonatal rat, we report that the locomotor-related signal produced by the lumbar central pattern generator for locomotion selectively modulates the intracellular activity of spinal respiratory neurons engaged in expiration. Our results thus contribute to our understanding of the cellular bases for coordinating the rhythmic neural circuitry responsible for different behaviors.

Keywords: brainstem–spinal cord preparation; locomotion; neural network interactions; newborn rat; respiration; thoracolumbar expiratory neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Female
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Respiratory Mechanics / physiology*
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*