Walking comes so naturally that we do it without thinking. On the other hand, we also know that walking has to be controlled by the brain somehow. It’s basic neurobiology. Furthermore, we have to learn how to walk as infants.
Although our ability to walk is taken for granted, the mechanics are more complex. When we walk we use arms, legs, hips, and feet. Many other muscles are activated in our limbs as well.
Then there is the question of coordination. Multiple flexor and extensor muscles and nerve cells are being activated all at once and signals are passed to alternate the right arm with the left leg and vice versa.
So it would be a logical conclusion to expect that walking fires several parts of the brain. Until recently, that was precisely what had been assumed. Walking was thought to be controlled by the central pattern generator, a complex network of neuronal circuits that when activated produce rhythmic motor patterns.
However, neuroscientists have discovered that when we’re walking, coordination is only controlled by one group of neurones – the ventral spinocerebellar tract neurones (VSTN).
The Walking Neurone
The discovery was made after a team of researchers disabled VSTN cells in adult mice. Whilst the chemical injection was active, the mice were unable to move until the drug wore off. Then the mice were found scurrying around again.
It was further determined that VSTN cells are highly interconnected. Without them, we would not be able to coordinate our arms and legs to maintain rhythm and balance whilst walking.
The results of the study could provide an impetus for the development of new therapies. If medical researchers can figure out a way to stimulate ventral spinocerebellar tract neurons to ensure that the central pattern generator is working properly, we could have a revolutionary treatment for people with spinal cord injuries and motor disorders.