Miami Project Researchers Identify Key Area of the Brain Important for Walking

Miami Project researchers recently published a paper in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience titled Activation of Brainstem Neurons During Mesencephalic Locomotor Region-Evoked Locomotion. In this work, Brian Noga, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor, Department of Neurological Surgery and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and his team redefine the understanding of the neural pathways involved in walking. This discovery could lead to new targets for therapies aimed at improving walking function (locomotion) in people living with paralysis.

While numerous areas of the brain are involved in locomotion, the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR) has been identified as the key area controlling locomotor neurons in the spinal cord. Electrical stimulation of the MLR results in locomotor movements. This technique has been evaluated in previous studies as a method for treating movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury.

However, scientists have disagreed about the exact anatomical location of the MLR, which could have a major impact on the effectiveness of treating movement disorders. In this recently published study, Dr. Noga believes that he and his team have located the “true mesencephalic locomotor region”, which is the sweet spot for evoking locomotion.

Stimulation of the mesencephalic locomotor regionactivates a network of neurons in the brainstem, which activate the spinal cord through a “common pathway,” initiating locomotion. In addition to identifying these descending pathways, this study also provides evidence for central connectivity of locomotor, respiratory, vestibular, and cardiovascular networks.

“The most exciting thing about this research is that it helps us truly redefine the descending pathways for the production of locomotion. We’ve shown that it is not a single pathway, but locomotion is the result of a parallel pathway activation. There are many pathways activated for walking, and this is an exciting discovery,” said Dr. Noga.

Dr. Noga and his team have already begun translating this exciting preclinical work towards clinical application. To determine the effects of mesencephalic locomotor region stimulation in spinal cord injury, they are completing their next study in a larger animal model. Additionally, Dr. Noga and the neurosurgery team have received funding, and FDA approval, to evaluate stimulation of the “true MLR” in people with Parkinson’s disease.