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Contrasting walking styles map to discrete neural substrates in the mouse brainstem

Worley, A;Kirby, A;Luks, S;Samardzic, T;Ellison, B;Broom, L;Latremoliere, A;VanderHorst, VG;

Walking is a slow gait which is particularly adaptable to meet internal or external needs and is prone to maladaptive alterations that lead to gait disorders. Alterations can affect speed, but also style (the way one walks). While slowed speed may signify the presence of a problem, style represents the hallmark essential for clinical classification of gait disorders. However, it has been challenging to objectively capture key stylistic features while uncovering neural substrates driving these features. Here we revealed brainstem hotspots that drive strikingly different walking styles by employing an unbiased mapping assay that combines quantitative walking signatures with focal, cell type specific activation. We found that activation of inhibitory neurons that mapped to the ventromedial caudal pons induced slow motion-like style. Activation of excitatory neurons that mapped to the ventromedial upper medulla induced shuffle-like style. Contrasting shifts in walking signatures distinguished these styles. Activation of inhibitory and excitatory neurons outside these territories or of serotonergic neurons modulated walking speed, but without walking signature shifts. Consistent with their contrasting modulatory actions, hotspots for slow-motion and shuffle-like gaits preferentially innervated different substrates. These findings lay the basis for new avenues to study mechanisms underlying (mal)adaptive walking styles and gait disorders.