What are the building blocks with which the human spinal cord constructs the motor patterns of locomotion? In principle, they could correspond to each individual activity pattern in dozens of different muscles. Alternatively, there could exist a small set of constituent temporal components that are common to all activation patterns and reflect global kinematic goals. To address this issue, we studied patients with spinal injury trained to step on a treadmill with body weight support. Patients learned to produce foot kinematics similar to that of healthy subjects but with activity patterns of individual muscles generally different from the control group. Hidden in the muscle patterns, we found a basic set of five temporal components, whose flexible combination accounted for the wide range of muscle patterns recorded in both controls and patients. Furthermore, two of the components were systematically related to foot kinematics across different stepping speeds and loading conditions. We suggest that the components are related to control signals output by spinal pattern generators, normally under the influence of descending and afferent inputs.
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