A Laboratory Exercise Demonstrating the Limited Circumstances in which the Cerebral Cortex is Engaged in Over Ground Locomotion

John A Buford


For neuroscience, memorable demonstrations of principles in action are crucial. Neural control of walking is particularly difficult to understand because the interaction of the cerebral cortex with a central pattern generator (CPG) makes the mode of control context-dependent. Beginning students tend to consider corticospinal control the basis of all movement, so they may not distinguish the limited circumstances in which the cerebral cortex bypasses the CPG to control leg movements directly for walking. The demonstration described here is designed to show that cortical involvement in normal walking is minimal unless visual control of foot placement is required. Cortical involvement in motor control is assessed by probing for spare attention while a student volunteer performs three different tasks: sitting, walking down a hallway, and walking through an obstacle course. Simple math quizzes with 20 oral questions are the probes. The class observes the demonstration and discusses the results. To evaluate learning, a multiple-choice question was administered two months after the demonstration, as well as 14 months later to cohorts from the previous years class. The demonstration succeeded: quiz scores were similar for sitting and level walking, but lower for the obstacle course. Two months later, 86% of students correctly answered the multiple choice question; 42% of the previous years cohorts answered correctly after 14 months. The demonstration shows that the cortex is engaged by walking through an obstacle course, not walking on a flat indoor surface. Initially, most students learned this distinction well, but after a year, many reverted to the idea that the corticospinal tract controls details of leg movements during walking. Thus this result emphasizes the need for review of advanced concepts. Overall, the experience was fun and could easily fit into basic or clinical neuroscience courses.

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