An optogenetic demonstration of motor modularity in the mammalian spinal cord
Motor modules are neural entities hypothesized to be building blocks of movement construction. How motor modules are underpinned by neural circuits has remained obscured. As a first step towards dissecting these circuits, we optogenetically evoked motor outputs from the lumbosacral spinal cord of two strains of transgenic mice - the Chat, with channelrhodopsin (ChR2) expressed in motoneurons, and the Thy1, expressed in putatively excitatory neurons. Motor output was represented as a spatial field of isometric ankle force. We found that Thy1 force fields were more complex and diverse in structure than Chat fields: the Thy1 fields comprised mostly non-parallel vectors while the Chat fields, mostly parallel vectors. In both, most fields elicited by co-stimulation of two laser beams were well explained by linear combination of the separately-evoked fields. We interpreted the Thy1 force fields as representations of spinal motor modules. Our comparison of the Chat and Thy1 fields allowed us to conclude, with reasonable certainty, that the structure of neuromotor modules originates from excitatory spinal interneurons. Our results not only demonstrate, for the first time using optogenetics, how the spinal modules follow linearity in their combinations, but also provide a reference against which future optogenetic studies of modularity can be compared.