Critical points and traveling wave in locomotion: Experimental evidence and some theoretical considerations

Philippe Saltiel*, Andrea D’Avella, Matthew C. Tresch, Kuno Wyler, Emilio Bizzi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The central pattern generator (CPG) architecture for rhythm generation remains partly elusive. We compare cat and frog locomotion results, where the component unrelated to pattern formation appears as a temporal grid, and traveling wave respectively. Frog spinal cord microstimulation with N-methyl-D-Aspartate (NMDA), a CPG activator, produced a limited set of force directions, sometimes tonic, but more often alternating between directions similar to the tonic forces. The tonic forces were topographically organized, and sites evoking rhythms with different force subsets were located close to the constituent tonic force regions. Thus CPGs consist of topographically organized modules. Modularity was also identified as a limited set of muscle synergies whose combinations reconstructed the EMGs. The cat CPG was investigated using proprioceptive inputs during fictive locomotion. Critical points identified both as abrupt transitions in the effect of phasic perturbations, and burst shape transitions, had biomechanical correlates in intact locomotion. During tonic proprioceptive perturbations, discrete shifts between these critical points explained the burst durations changes, and amplitude changes occurred at one of these points. Besides confirming CPG modularity, these results suggest a fixed temporal grid of anchoring points, to shift modules onsets and offsets. Frog locomotion, reconstructed with the NMDA synergies, showed a partially overlapping synergy activation sequence. Using the early synergy output evoked by NMDA at different spinal sites, revealed a rostrocaudal topographic organization, where each synergy is preferentially evoked from a few, albeit overlapping, cord regions. Comparing the locomotor synergy sequence with this topography suggests that a rostrocaudal traveling wave would activate the synergies in the proper sequence for locomotion. This output was reproduced in a two-layer model using this topography and a traveling wave. Together our results suggest two CPG components: modules, i.e., synergies; and temporal patterning, seen as a temporal grid in the cat, and a traveling wave in the frog. Animal and limb navigation have similarities. Research relating grid cells to the theta rhythm and on segmentation during navigation may relate to our temporal grid and traveling wave results. Winfree’s mathematical work, combining critical phases and a traveling wave, also appears important. We conclude suggesting tracing, and imaging experiments to investigate our CPG model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number98
JournalFrontiers in Neural Circuits
StatePublished - Dec 8 2017


  • Central pattern generator
  • Critical point shifts
  • Hippocampus
  • Locomotion
  • Spinal cord
  • Temporal grid
  • Traveling wave
  • Winfree’s phase singularities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)


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