James W. Grau
The traditional view of central nervous system function presumed that learning is the province of the brain. From this perspective, the spinal cord functions primarily as a conduit for incoming/outgoing neural impulses, capable of organizing simple reflexes but incapable of learning. Research has challenged this view, demonstrating that neurons within the spinal cord, isolated from the brain by means of a spinal cut (transection), can encode environmental relations and that this experience can have a lasting effect on function. The exploration of this issue has been informed by work in the learning literature that establishes the behavioral criteria and work within the pain literature that has shed light on the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Studies have shown that spinal systems can exhibit single stimulus learning (habituation and sensitization) and are sensitive to both stimulus–stimulus (Pavlovian) and response–outcome (instrumental) relations. Regular environmental relations can both bring about an alteration in the performance of a spinally mediated response and impact the capacity to learn in future situations. The latter represents a form of behavioral metaplasticity. At the neurobiological level, neurons within the central gray matter of the spinal cord induce lasting alterations by engaging the NMDA receptor and signal pathways implicated in brain-dependent learning and memory. Of particular clinical importance, uncontrollable/unpredictable pain (nociceptive) input can induce a form of neural over-excitation within the dorsal horn (central sensitization) that impairs adaptive learning. Pain input after a contusion injury can increase tissue loss and undermines long-term recovery.
Cynthia F. Moss
Echolocating bats have evolved an active sensing system, which supports 3D perception of objects in the surroundings and permits spatial navigation in complete darkness. Echolocating animals produce high frequency sounds and use the arrival time, intensity, and frequency content of echo returns to determine the distance, direction, and features of objects in the environment. Over 1,000 species of bats echolocate with signals produced in their larynges. They use diverse sonar signal designs, operate in habitats ranging from tropical rain forest to desert, and forage for different foods, including insects, fruit, nectar, small vertebrates, and even blood. Specializations of the mammalian auditory system, coupled with high frequency hearing, enable spatial imaging by echolocation in bats. Specifically, populations of neurons in the bat central nervous system respond selectively to the direction and delay of sonar echoes. In addition, premotor neurons in the bat brain are implicated in the production of sonar calls, along with movement of the head and ears. Audio-motor circuits, within and across brain regions, lay the neural foundation for acoustic orientation by echolocation in bats.
Paul Benjamin and Michael Crossley
It is conceptually reasonable to explore how the evolution of behavior involves changes in neural circuitry. Progress in determining this evolutionary relationship has been limited in neuroscience because of difficulties in identifying individual neurons that contribute to the evolutionary development of behaviors across species. However, the results from the feeding systems of gastropod mollusks provide evidence for this concept of co-evolution because the evolution of different types of feeding behaviors in this diverse group of mollusks is mirrored by species-specific changes in neural circuitry. The evolution of feeding behaviors involves changes in the motor actions that allow diverse food items to be acquired and ingested. The evolution in neural control accompanies this variation in food and the associated changes in flexibility of feeding behaviors. This is present in components of the feeding network that are involved in decision making, rhythm generation, and behavioral switching but is absent in background mechanisms that are conserved across species, such as those controlling arousal state. These findings show how evolutionary changes, even at the single neuron level, closely reflect the details of behavioral evolution.
Eliot A. Brenowitz
Animals produce communication signals to attract mates and deter rivals during their breeding season. The coincidence in timing results from the modulation of signaling behavior and neural activity by sex steroid hormones associated with reproduction. Adrenal steroids can influence signaling for aggressive interactions outside the breeding season. Androgenic and estrogenic hormones act on brain circuits that regulate the motivation to produce and respond to signals, the motor production of signals, and the sensory perception of signals. Signal perception, in turn, can stimulate gonadal development.
Navigation is the ability of animals to move through their environment in a planned manner. Different from directed but reflex-driven movements, it involves the comparison of the animal’s current heading with its intended heading (i.e., the goal direction). When the two angles don’t match, a compensatory steering movement must be initiated. This basic scenario can be described as an elementary navigational decision. Many elementary decisions chained together in specific ways form a coherent navigational strategy. With respect to navigational goals, there are four main forms of navigation: explorative navigation (exploring the environment for food, mates, shelter, etc.); homing (returning to a nest); straight-line orientation (getting away from a central place in a straight line); and long-distance migration (seasonal long-range movements to a location such as an overwintering place). The homing behavior of ants and bees has been examined in the most detail. These insects use several strategies to return to their nest after foraging, including path integration, route following, and, potentially, even exploit internal maps. Independent of the strategy used, insects can use global sensory information (e.g., skylight cues), local cues (e.g., visual panorama), and idiothetic (i.e., internal, self-generated) cues to obtain information about their current and intended headings.
How are these processes controlled by the insect brain? While many unanswered questions remain, much progress has been made in recent years in understanding the neural basis of insect navigation. Neural pathways encoding polarized light information (a global navigational cue) target a brain region called the central complex, which is also involved in movement control and steering. Being thus placed at the interface of sensory information processing and motor control, this region has received much attention recently and emerged as the navigational “heart” of the insect brain. It houses an ordered array of head-direction cells that use a wide range of sensory information to encode the current heading of the animal. At the same time, it receives information about the movement speed of the animal and thus is suited to compute the home vector for path integration. With the help of neurons following highly stereotypical projection patterns, the central complex theoretically can perform the comparison of current and intended heading that underlies most navigation processes. Examining the detailed neural circuits responsible for head-direction coding, intended heading representation, and steering initiation in this brain area will likely lead to a solid understanding of the neural basis of insect navigation in the years to come.
Karim Fouad, Abel Torres-Espín, and Keith K. Fenrich
Spinal cord injury results in a wide range of behavioral changes including impaired motor and sensory function, autonomic dysfunction, spasticity, and depression. Currently, restoring lost motor function is the most actively studied and sought-after goal of spinal cord injury research. This research is rooted in the fact that although self-repair following spinal cord injury in adult mammals is very limited, there can be some recovery of motor function. This recovery is strongly dependent on the lesion size and location as well as on neural activity of denervated networks activated mainly through physical activity (i.e., rehabilitative training). Recovery of motor function is largely due to neuroplasticity, which includes adaptive changes in spared and injured neural circuitry. Neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury is extensive and includes mechanisms such as moderate axonal sprouting, the formation of new synaptic connections, network remapping, and changes to neuron cell properties. Neuroplasticity after spinal cord injury has been described at various physiological and anatomical levels of the central nervous system including the brain, brainstem, and spinal cord, both above and below injury sites. The growing number of mechanisms underlying postinjury plasticity indicate the vast complexity of injury-induced plasticity. This poses important opportunities to further enhance and harness plasticity in order to promote recovery. However, the diversity of neuroplasticity also creates challenges for research, which is frequently based on mechanistically driven approaches. The appreciation of the complexity of neuronal plasticity and the findings that recovery is based on a multitude and interlinked adaptations will be essential in developing meaningful new treatment avenues.
Kathleen E. Cullen
As we go about our everyday activities, our brain computes accurate estimates of both our motion relative to the world, and of our orientation relative to gravity. Essential to this computation is the information provided by the vestibular system; it detects the rotational velocity and linear acceleration of our heads relative to space, making a fundamental contribution to our perception of self-motion and spatial orientation. Additionally, in everyday life, our perception of self-motion depends on the integration of both vestibular and nonvestibular cues, including visual and proprioceptive information. Furthermore, the integration of motor-related information is also required for perceptual stability, so that the brain can distinguish whether the experienced sensory inflow was a result of active self-motion through the world or if instead self-motion that was externally generated. To date, understanding how the brain encodes and integrates sensory cues with motor signals for the perception of self-motion during natural behaviors remains a major goal in neuroscience. Recent experiments have (i) provided new insights into the neural code used to represent sensory information in vestibular pathways, (ii) established that vestibular pathways are inherently multimodal at the earliest stages of processing, and (iii) revealed that self-motion information processing is adjusted to meet the needs of specific tasks. Our current level of understanding of how the brain integrates sensory information and motor-related signals to encode self-motion and ensure perceptual stability during everyday activities is reviewed.
The spinal cord is a prime example of how the central nervous system has evolved to execute and retain movements adapted to the environment. This results from the evolution of inborn intrinsic spinal circuits modified continuously by repetitive interactions with the outside world, as well as by developing internal needs or goals. This article emphasizes the underlying neuroplastic spinal mechanisms through observations of normal animal adaptive locomotor behavior in different imposed conditions. It further explores the motor spinal capabilities after various types of lesions to the spinal cord and the potential mechanisms underlying the spinal changes occurring after these lesions, leading to recovery of function. Together, these observations strengthen the idea of the immense potential of the motor rehabilitation approach in humans with spinal cord injury since extrinsic interventions (training, pharmacology, and electrical stimulation) can modulate and optimize remnant motor functions after injury.
Corinna Darian-Smith and Karen Fisher
Spinal cord injury (SCI) affects well over a million people in the United States alone, and its personal and societal costs are huge. This article provides a current overview of the organization of somatosensory and motor pathways, in the context of hand/paw function in nonhuman primate and rodent models of SCI. Despite decades of basic research and clinical trials, therapeutic options remain limited. This is largely due to the fact that (i) spinal cord structure and function is very complex and still poorly understood, (ii) there are many species differences which can make translation from the rodent to primate difficult, and (iii) we are still some way from determining the detailed multilevel pathway responses affecting recovery. There has also been little focus, until recently, on the sensory pathways involved in SCI and recovery, which are so critical to hand function and the recovery process. The potential for recovery in any individual depends on many factors, including the location and size of the injury, the extent of sparing of fiber tracts, and the post-injury inflammatory response. There is also a progression of change over the first weeks and months that must be taken into account when assessing recovery. There are currently no good biomarkers of recovery, and while axon terminal sprouting is frequently used in the experimental setting as an indicator of circuit remodeling and “recovery,” the correlation between sprouting and functional recovery deserves scrutiny.
Itzhak Fischer and Shaoping Hou
Spinal cord injury is characterized by a complex set of events, which include the disruption of connectivity between the brain and the periphery with little or no spontaneous regeneration, resulting in motor, sensory and autonomic deficits. Transplantation of neural stem cells has the potential to provide the cellular components for repair of spinal cord injury (SCI), including oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, and neurons. The ability to generate graft-derived neurons can be used to restore connectivity by formation of functional relays. The critical requirements for building a relay are to achieve long-term survival of graft-derived neurons and promote axon growth into and out of the transplant. Recent studies have demonstrated that mixed populations of glial and neuronal progenitors provide a permissive microenvironment for survival and differentiation of early-stage neurons, but inclusion of growth factors with the transplant or cues for directional axon growth outside the transplant may also be needed. Other important considerations include the timing of the transplantation and the selection of a population of neurons that maximizes the effective transmission of signals. In some experiments, the essential neuronal relay formation has been developed in both sensory and motor systems related to locomotion, respiration, and autonomic functions. Despite impressive advances, the poor regenerative capacity of adult CNS combined with the inhibitory environment of the injury remain a challenge for achieving functional connectivity via supraspinal tracts, but it is possible that recruitment of local propriospinal neurons may facilitate the formation of relays. Furthermore, it is clear that the new connections will not be identical to the original innervation, and therefore there needs to be a mechanism for translating the resulting connectivity into useful function. A promising strategy is to mimic the process of neural development by exploiting the remarkable plasticity associated with activity and exercise to prune and strengthen synaptic connections. In the meantime, the sources of neural cells for transplantation are rapidly expanding beyond the use of fetal CNS tissue and now include pluripotent ES and iPS cells as well as cells obtained by direct reprogramming. These new options can provide considerable advantages with respect to preparation of cell stocks and the use of autologous grafting, but they present challenges of complex differentiation protocols and risks of tumor formation. It is important to note that although neural stem cell transplantation into the injured spinal cord is primarily designed to provide preclinical data for the potential treatment of patients with SCI, it can also be used to develop analogous protocols for repair of neuronal circuits in other regions of the CNS damaged by injury or neurodegeneration. The advantages of the spinal cord system include well-defined structures and a large array of quantitative functional tests. Therefore, studying the formation of a functional relay will address the fundamental aspects of neuronal cell replacement without the additional complexities associated with brain circuits.
What is a Sequence? The Neural Mechanisms of Perceptual, Motor, and Task Sequences Across Species and Their Interaction with Addiction
Theresa M. Desrochers and Theresa H. McKim
Sequences permeate daily life. They can be defined as a discrete series of items or states that occur in a specific order with a beginning and end. The brain supports the perception and execution of sequences. Perceptual sequences involve tracking regularities in incoming stimuli, such as the series of sounds that make up a word in language. Executed sequences range from the series of muscle activations used by a frog to catch a fly to a chess master mapping her next moves. How the brain controls sequences must therefore scale to multiple levels of control. Investigating how the brain functions to accomplish this task spans from the study of individual cells in the brain to human cognition. Understanding the neural systems that underlie sequential control is necessary to approach the mechanistic underpinnings of complex conditions such as addiction, which may be rooted in difficult-to-extinguish sequential behaviors. Current research focuses on studies in both animal and human models and spans the levels of complexity of sequential control and the brain systems that support it.