Spinal motor outputs during step-to-step transitions of diverse human gaits

Valentina La Scaleia, Yuri P. Ivanenko, Karl E. Zelik, Francesco Lacquaniti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aspects of human motor control can be inferred from the coordination of muscles during movement. For instance, by combining multimuscle electromyographic (EMG) recordings with human neuroanatomy, it is possible to estimate alpha-motoneuron (MN) pool activations along the spinal cord. It has previously been shown that the spinal motor output fluctuates with the body's center-of-mass motion, with bursts of activity around foot-strike and foot lift-off during walking. However, it is not known whether these MN bursts are generalizable to other ambulation tasks, nor is it clear if the spatial locus of the activity (along the rostrocaudal axis of the spinal cord) is fixed or variable. Here we sought to address these questions by investigating the spatiotemporal characteristics of the spinal motor output during various tasks: walking forward, backward, tiptoe and uphill. We reconstructed spinal maps from 26 leg muscle EMGs, including some intrinsic foot muscles. We discovered that the various walking tasks shared qualitative similarities in their temporal spinal activation profiles, exhibiting peaks around foot-strike and foot-lift. However, we also observed differences in the segmental level and intensity of spinal activations, particularly following foot-strike. For example, forward level-ground walking exhibited a mean motor output roughly 2 times lower than the other gaits. Finally, we found that the reconstruction of the spinal motor output from multimuscle EMG recordings was relatively insensitive to the subset of muscles analyzed. In summary, our results suggested temporal similarities, but spatial differences in the segmental spinal motor outputs during the step-to-step transitions of disparate walking behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number305
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberMAY
Publication statusPublished - May 15 2014


  • Backward
  • EMG
  • Motoneurons
  • Spinal mapping
  • Tiptoe
  • Uphill
  • Walking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Neurology
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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