‘Steering wheel’ neurons control left and right turns in mice

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Researchers have mapped how certain neurons act as the brain’s “steering wheel” to control whether mice turn right or left while walking.

Researchers hope the findings, which clarify how the brain controls walking, will one day prove useful for people with motor disorders.

Walking is one of the most important motor skills for animals and humans. In spite of this, which signals and electrical impulses from the brain control our walking remains unclear.

“It is an important discovery because movement is fundamentally one of the most basic features controlled by the brain,” says Ole Kiehn, professor in the neuroscience department at the University of Copenhagen. “At the same time, motor disorders can be very disabling. Therefore, knowledge of the basic mechanisms of the brain and the spinal cord which control our movements is important.”

Ole Kiehn explains more more about the new research:

The neuron networks that are directly responsible for coordination of the walking movement are located in the spinal cord and are relatively well described.

But researchers have now found that a particular group of neurons in the brain stem, which researchers can identify by their expression of a particular molecular marker called Chx10, sends signals to the spinal cord to control direction.

“The control is done by simply applying the ‘brake’ to the walking movement on the side that the mice turn to—then the muscles will contract on the same side,” says first author Jared Cregg, a postdoc in the neuroscience department.

“In this way, the length of the steps on one side becomes short and on the other side long, making the mouse turn. Thus, the Chx10 cells constitute a motor turning system—a kind of steering wheel.”

The paper appears in Nature Neuroscience. EMBO, the European Research Council, the Novo Nordisk Foundation Laureate Programme, and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences funded the work.

Source: University of Copenhagen