Spinal premotor interneurons controlling antagonistic muscles are spatially intermingled

Elife. 2022 Dec 13:11:e81976. doi: 10.7554/eLife.81976.


Elaborate behaviours are produced by tightly controlled flexor-extensor motor neuron activation patterns. Motor neurons are regulated by a network of interneurons within the spinal cord, but the computational processes involved in motor control are not fully understood. The neuroanatomical arrangement of motor and premotor neurons into topographic patterns related to their controlled muscles is thought to facilitate how information is processed by spinal circuits. Rabies retrograde monosynaptic tracing has been used to label premotor interneurons innervating specific motor neuron pools, with previous studies reporting topographic mediolateral positional biases in flexor and extensor premotor interneurons. To more precisely define how premotor interneurons contacting specific motor pools are organized, we used multiple complementary viral-tracing approaches in mice to minimize systematic biases associated with each method. Contrary to expectations, we found that premotor interneurons contacting motor pools controlling flexion and extension of the ankle are highly intermingled rather than segregated into specific domains like motor neurons. Thus, premotor spinal neurons controlling different muscles process motor instructions in the absence of clear spatial patterns among the flexor-extensor circuit components.

Keywords: extensor muscles; flexor muscles; mouse; neuroscience; premotor interneurons; rabies viral tracing; spinal cord.

Plain language summary

The spinal cord contains circuits of nerve cells that control how the body moves. Within these networks are interneurons that project to motor neurons, which innervate different types of muscle to contract: flexors (such as the biceps), which bend, or ‘flex’, the body’s joints, and extensors (such as the triceps), which lead to joint extension. These motor signals must be carefully coordinated to allow precise and stable control of the body’s movements. Previous studies suggest that where interneurons are placed in the spinal cord depends on whether they activate the motor neurons responsible for flexion or extension. To test if these findings were reproducible, Ronzano, Skarlatou, Barriga, Bannatyne, Bhumbra et al. studied interneurons which flex and extend the ankle joint in mice. In collaboration with several laboratories, the team used a combination of techniques to trace how interneurons and motor neurons were connected in the mouse spinal cord. This revealed that regardless of the method used or the laboratory in which the experiments were performed, the distribution of interneurons associated with flexion and extension overlapped one another. This finding contradicts previously published results and suggests that interneurons in the spinal cord are not segregated based on their outputs. Instead, they may be positioned based on the signals they receive, similar to motor neurons. Understanding where interneurons in the spinal cord are placed will provide new insights on how movement is controlled and how it is impacted by injuries and disease. In the future, this knowledge could benefit work on how neural circuits in the spinal cord are formed and how they can be regenerated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Interneurons* / physiology
  • Mice
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Muscles*
  • Rabies
  • Spinal Cord* / physiology