Central pattern generators in the brainstem and spinal cord: an overview of basic principles, similarities and differences

Rev Neurosci. 2019 Jan 28;30(2):107-164. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2017-0102.


Central pattern generators (CPGs) are generally defined as networks of neurons capable of enabling the production of central commands, specifically controlling stereotyped, rhythmic motor behaviors. Several CPGs localized in brainstem and spinal cord areas have been shown to underlie the expression of complex behaviors such as deglutition, mastication, respiration, defecation, micturition, ejaculation, and locomotion. Their pivotal roles have clearly been demonstrated although their organization and cellular properties remain incompletely characterized. In recent years, insightful findings about CPGs have been made mainly because (1) several complementary animal models were developed; (2) these models enabled a wide variety of techniques to be used and, hence, a plethora of characteristics to be discovered; and (3) organizations, functions, and cell properties across all models and species studied thus far were generally found to be well-preserved phylogenetically. This article aims at providing an overview for non-experts of the most important findings made on CPGs in in vivo animal models, in vitro preparations from invertebrate and vertebrate species as well as in primates. Data about CPG functions, adaptation, organization, and cellular properties will be summarized with a special attention paid to the network for locomotion given its advanced level of characterization compared with some of the other CPGs. Similarities and differences between these networks will also be highlighted.

Keywords: brainstem; defecation; ejaculation; locomotion; micturition; respiration; spinal; swallowing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Central Pattern Generators / physiology*
  • Defecation / physiology
  • Humans
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*