Reference frames for spinal proprioception: Limb endpoint based or joint-level based?

G. Bosco, R. E. Poppele, J. Eian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many sensorimotor neurons in the CNS encode global parameters of limb movement and posture rather than specific muscle or joint parameters. Our investigations of spinocerebellar activity have demonstrated that these second-order spinal neurons also may encode proprioceptive information in a limb based rather than joint-based reference frame. However, our finding that each foot position was determined by a unique combination of joint angles in the passive limb made it difficult to distinguish unequivocally between a limb-based and a joint-based representation. In this study, we decoupled foot position from limb geometry by applying mechanical constraints to individual hindlimb joints in anesthetized cats. We quantified the effect of the joint constraints on limb geometry by analyzing joint-angle covariance in the free and constrained conditions. One type of constraint, a rigid constraint of the knee angle, both changed the covariance pattern and significantly reduced the strength of joint-angle covariance. The other type, an elastic constraint of the ankle angle, changed only the covariance pattern and not its overall strength. We studied the effect of these constraints on the activity in 70 dorsal spinocerebellar tract (DSCT) neurons using a multivariate regression model, with limb axis length and orientation as predictors of neuronal activity. This model also included an experimental condition indicator variable that allowed significant intercept or slope changes in the relationships between foot position parameters and neuronal activity to be determined across conditions. The result of this analysis was that the spatial tuning of 37/70 neurons (53%) was unaffected by the constraints, suggesting that they were somehow able to signal foot position independently from the specific joint angles. We also investigated the extent to which cell activity represented individual joint angles by means of a regression model based on a linear combination of joint angles. A backward elimination of the insignificant predictors determined the set of independent joint angles that best described the neuronal activity for each experimental condition. Finally, by comparing the results of these two approaches, we could determine whether a DSCT neuron represented foot position, specific joint angles, or none of these variables consistently. We found that 10/70 neurons (14%) represented one or more specific joint-angles. The activity of another 27 neurons (39%) was significantly affected by limb geometry changes, but 33 neurons (47%) consistently elaborated a foot position representation in the coordinates of the limb axis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2931-2945
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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