The Human Central Pattern Generator for Locomotion: Does It Exist and Contribute to Walking?

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The ability of dedicated spinal circuits, referred to as central pattern generators (CPGs), to produce the basic rhythm and neural activation patterns underlying locomotion can be demonstrated under specific experimental conditions in reduced animal preparations. The existence of CPGs in humans is a matter of debate. Equally elusive is the contribution of CPGs to normal bipedal locomotion. To address these points, we focus on human studies that utilized spinal cord stimulation or pharmacological neuromodulation to generate rhythmic activity in individuals with spinal cord injury, and on neuromechanical modeling of human locomotion. In the absence of volitional motor control and step-specific sensory feedback, the human lumbar spinal cord can produce rhythmic muscle activation patterns that closely resemble CPG-induced neural activity of the isolated animal spinal cord. In this sense, CPGs in humans can be defined by the activity they produce. During normal locomotion, CPGs could contribute to the activation patterns during specific phases of the step cycle and simplify supraspinal control of step cycle frequency as a feedforward component to achieve a targeted speed. Determining how the human CPGs operate will be essential to advance the theory of neural control of locomotion and develop new locomotor neurorehabilitation paradigms.

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