Changes in the Spinal Segmental Motor Output for Stepping during Development from Infant to Adult
Human stepping movements emerge in utero and show several milestones during development to independent walking. Recently, imaging has become an essential tool for investigating the development and function of pattern generation networks in the spinal cord. Here we examine the development of the spinal segmental output by mapping the distribution of motoneuron activity in the lumbosacral spinal cord during stepping in newborns, toddlers, preschoolers, and adults. Newborn stepping is characterized by an alternating bilateral motor output with only two major components that are active at all lumbosacral levels of the spinal cord. This feature was similar across different cycle durations of neonate stepping. The alternating spinal motor output is consistent with a simpler organization of neuronal networks in neonates. Furthermore, a remarkable feature of newborn stepping is a higher overall activation of lumbar versus sacral segments, consistent with a rostrocaudal excitability gradient. In toddlers, the stance-related motor pool activity migrates to the sacral cord segments, while the lumbar motoneurons are separately activated at touchdown. In the adult, the lumbar and sacral patterns become more dissociated with shorter activation times. We conclude that the development of human locomotion from the neonate to the adult starts from a rostrocaudal excitability gradient and involves a gradual functional reorganization of the pattern generation circuitry.