The basic pattern of activity underlying stepping in mammals is generated by a neural network located in the caudal spinal cord. Within this network, the specific circuitry coordinating left-right alternation has been shown to involve several groups of molecularly defined interneurons. Here we characterize a population of spinal neurons that express the Wilms' tumor 1 (WT1) gene and investigate their role during locomotor activity in mice of both sexes. We demonstrate that WT1-expressing cells are located in the ventromedial region of the spinal cord of mice and are also present in the human spinal cord. In the mouse, these cells are inhibitory, project axons to the contralateral spinal cord, terminate in close proximity to other commissural interneuron subtypes, and are essential for appropriate left-right alternation during locomotion. In addition to identifying WT1-expressing interneurons as a key component of the locomotor circuitry, this study provides insight into the manner in which several populations of molecularly defined interneurons are interconnected to generate coordinated motor activity on either side of the body during stepping.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT In this study, we characterize WT1-expressing spinal interneurons in mice and demonstrate that they are commissurally projecting and inhibitory. Silencing of this neuronal population during a locomotor task results in a complete breakdown of left-right alternation, whereas flexor-extensor alternation was not significantly affected. Axons of WT1 neurons are shown to terminate nearby commissural interneurons, which coordinate motoneuron activity during locomotion, and presumably regulate their activity. Finally, the WT1 gene is shown to be present in the spinal cord of humans, raising the possibility of functional homology between these species. This study not only identifies a key component of the locomotor circuitry but also begins to unravel the connectivity among the growing number of molecularly defined interneurons that comprise this neural network.
Pubmed ID: 29789381 RIS Download
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