The role of a trigeminal sensory nucleus in the initiation of locomotion

Edgar Buhl, Alan Roberts, Stephen R Soffe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

16 Citations (Scopus)


While we understand how stimuli evoke sudden, ballistic escape responses, like fish fast-starts, a precise pathway from sensory stimulation to the initiation of rhythmic locomotion has not been defined for any vertebrate. We have now asked how head skin stimuli evoke swimming in hatchling frog tadpoles. Whole-cell recordings and dye filling revealed a nucleus of similar to 20 trigeminal interneurons (tINs) in the hindbrain, at the level of the auditory nerve, with long, ipsilateral, descending axons. Stimulation of touch-sensitive trigeminal afferents with receptive fields anywhere on the head evoked large, monosynaptic EPSPs (similar to 5-20 mV) in tINs, at mixed AMPAR/NMDAR synapses. Following stimuli sufficient to elicit swimming, tINs fired up to six spikes, starting 4-8ms after the stimulus. Paired whole-cell recordings showed that tINs produce small (similar to 2-6mV), monosynaptic, glutamatergic EPSPs in the hindbrain reticulospinal neurons (descending interneurons, dINs) that drive swimming. Modelling suggested that summation of EPSPs from 18-24 tINs can make 20-50% of dINs fire. We conclude that: brief activity in a few sensory afferents is amplified by recruitment of many tINs; these relay summating excitation to hindbrain reticulospinal dINs; dIN firing then initiates activity for swimming on the stimulated side. During fictive swimming, tINs are depolarised and receive rhythmic inhibition but do not fire. Our recordings demonstrate a neuron-by-neuron pathway from head skin afferents to the reticulospinal neurons and motoneurons that drive locomotion in a vertebrate. This direct pathway, which has an important amplifier function, implies a simple origin for the complex routes to initiate locomotion in higher vertebrates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2453-2469
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Physiology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2012


  • Xenopus laevis
  • Animals
  • Swimming
  • Interneurons
  • Skin
  • Head
  • Larva
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials
  • Trigeminal Nuclei
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Touch

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