Thalamic stroke leads to ataxia if the cerebellum-receiving ventrolateral thalamus (VL) is affected. The compensation mechanisms for this deficit are not well understood, particularly the roles that single neurons and specific neuronal subpopulations outside the thalamus play in recovery. The goal of this study was to clarify neuronal mechanisms of the motor cortex involved in mitigation of ataxia during locomotion when part of the VL is inactivated or lesioned. In freely ambulating cats, we recorded the activity of neurons in layer V of the motor cortex as the cats walked on a flat surface and horizontally placed ladder. We first reversibly inactivated ∼10% of the VL unilaterally using glutamatergic transmission antagonist CNQX and analyzed how the activity of motor cortex reorganized to support successful locomotion. We next lesioned 50%-75% of the VL bilaterally using kainic acid and analyzed how the activity of motor cortex reorganized when locomotion recovered. When a small part of the VL was inactivated, the discharge rates of motor cortex neurons decreased, but otherwise the activity was near normal, and the cats walked fairly well. Individual neurons retained their ability to respond to the demand for accuracy during ladder locomotion; however, most changed their response. When the VL was lesioned, the cat walked normally on the flat surface but was ataxic on the ladder for several days after lesion. When ladder locomotion normalized, neuronal discharge rates on the ladder were normal, and the shoulder-related group was preferentially active during the stride's swing phase.NEW & NOTEWORTHY This is the first analysis of reorganization of the activity of single neurons and subpopulations of neurons related to the shoulder, elbow, or wrist, as well as fast- and slow-conducting pyramidal tract neurons in the motor cortex of animals walking before and after inactivation or lesion in the thalamus. The results offer unique insights into the mechanisms of spontaneous recovery after thalamic stroke, potentially providing guidance for new strategies to alleviate locomotor deficits after stroke.
Keywords: cat; diaschisis; inactivation; limb control; pyramidal tract neuron.