Before infants stand up, they have a rough idea of how to walk; they just need time to lay down the right neural wiring. Understanding how infants take their first steps can help to enhance rehabilitation for patients recovering from spinal cord injury and to help children with cerebral palsy.
A group of researchers at Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam, led by Nadia Dominici PhD, is studying underlying neural patterns in locomotion development by looking at the emergence of walking behaviors in human babies and infant animals.
We are showing that humans and other terrestrial animals learn how to walk in surprisingly similar ways,” Dominici said in a news release.
The team found that movements such as walking are built from the flexible combination of locomotor primitives, a set of muscles that simplify the control of locomotion. It is believed that movement is not learned as much as it is fire up by the primitives.
“We found that human babies are born with just two walking primitives: the first directs the legs to bend and extend; the second commands the baby’s legs to alternate — left, right, left, right — in order to move forward. To walk independently, babies learn two more primitives, which we believe handle balance control, step timing and weight shifting,” Dominici said.
The study notes that locomotor primitives are surprisingly similar with different animals, despite differences in body structure and evolution.
“Locomotion in several animal species could start from common primitives, maybe even stemming from a common ancestral neural network,” Dominici said.
Understanding neural primitives could advance helping patients who have walking disabilities recover some lost mobility. Researchers are already seeing promising results in rehabilitating injured mice.
“We are now studying the applicability of this method to children with cerebral palsy and adults with spinal cord injuries,” Dominici said.