Generation of Locomotion Rhythms Without Inhibition in Vertebrates: The Search for Pacemaker Neurons (review)

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Locomotion rhythms are thought to be generated by neurons in the central-pattern-generator (CPG) circuit in the spinal cord. Synaptic connections in the CPG and pacemaker properties in certain CPG neurons, both may contribute to generation of the rhythms. In the half-center model proposed by Graham Brown a century ago, reciprocal inhibition plays a critical role. However, in all vertebrate preparations examined, rhythmic motor bursts can be induced when inhibition is blocked in the spinal cord. Without inhibition, neuronal pacemaker properties may become more important in generation of the rhythms. Pacemaker properties have been found in motoneurons and some premotor interneurons in different vertebrates and they can be dependent on N-Methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors (NMDAR) or rely on other ionic currents like persistent inward currents. In the swimming circuit of the hatchling Xenopus tadpole, there is substantial evidence that emergent network properties can give rise to swimming rhythms. During fictive swimming, excitatory interneurons (dINs) in the caudal hindbrain fire earliest on each swimming cycle and their spikes drive the firing of other CPG neurons. Regenerative dIN firing itself relies on reciprocal inhibition and background excitation. We now find that the activation of NMDARs can change dINs from firing singly at rest to current injection to firing repetitively at swimming frequencies. When action potentials are blocked, some intrinsic membrane potential oscillations at about 10 Hz are revealed, which may underlie repetitive dIN firing during NMDAR activation. In confirmation of this, dIN repetitive firing persists in NMDA when synaptic transmission is blocked by Cd(2+). When inhibition is blocked, only dINs and motoneurons are functional in the spinal circuit. We propose that the conditional intrinsic NMDAR-dependent pacemaker firing of dINs can drive the production of swimming-like rhythms without the participation of inhibitory neurotransmission.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)879-889
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number6
Early online date11 May 2011
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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