Journal of neurophysiology

Task-dependent modification of leg motor neuron synaptic input underlying changes in walking direction and walking speed.

PMID 26063769


Animals modify their behavior constantly to perform adequately in their environment. In terrestrial locomotion many forms of adaptation exist. Two tasks are changes of walking direction and walking speed. We investigated these two changes in motor output in the stick insect Cuniculina impigra to see how they are brought about at the level of leg motor neurons. We used a semi-intact preparation in which we can record intracellularly from leg motor neurons during walking. In this single-leg preparation the middle leg of the animal steps in a vertical plane on a treadwheel. Stimulation of either abdomen or head reliably elicits fictive forward or backward motor activity, respectively, in the fixed and otherwise deafferented thorax-coxa joint. With a change of walking direction only thorax-coxa-joint motor neurons protractor and retractor changed their activity. The protractor switched from swing activity during forward to stance activity during backward walking, and the retractor from stance to swing. This phase switch was due to corresponding change of phasic synaptic inputs from inhibitory to excitatory and vice versa at specific phases of the step cycle. In addition to phasic synaptic input a tonic depolarization of the motor neurons was present. Analysis of changes in stepping velocity during stance showed only a significant correlation to flexor motor neuron activity, but not to that of retractor and depressor motor neurons during forward walking. These results show that different tasks in the stick insect walking system are generated by altering synaptic inputs to specific leg joint motor neurons only.