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  • 1) Describe cellular structures that support movement

  • 2) Characterize the neural firing properties that modulate contraction force

  • 3) Differentiate between spinal interneurons and their role in movement

  • 4) Evaluate how the spinal cord produces simple and complex movements


This chapter will explore how the spinal cord is organized to produce complex movements. There is an orchestrated, precise balance between the type of afferent information entering the cord and how it is integrated by neurons in the gray matter of the spinal cord to activate muscles. The difference between a simple movement like the patellar tendon reflex and running on a treadmill can be as little as adding a set of interneurons to the monosynaptic circuit. We will consider how the spinal cord is designed to support multi-joint movements that adapt to the changing environment and unexpected perturbations within milliseconds. This chapter will show you that the spinal cord is organized in remarkable ways so that even a few neurons can mediate and sustain intricate, complex movements without input from the brain. Probably the most exciting feature we will consider is that the spinal cord can learn tasks independent of the brain. With this functional capacity existing in the cord, the brain can provide descending input and create even more complex, skilled movements.

Structure and Organization of the Spinal Cord

The human spinal cord extends from the base of the skull to the vertebral level between L1 and L2 (Figure 4-1). It contains four general regions named for the body location in which it resides – cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. Each region receives afferent information and sends motor signals to nearby muscles – Cervical supplies the arms and hands; Thoracic supplies the trunk; Lumbar supplies the legs and feet; and Sacral supplies the bowel, bladder, and genitalia.


Internal and external appearance of the spinal cord. (Reproduced with permission from Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM, Siegelbaum SA, Hudspeth AJ. Principles of Neural Science, 5th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013, Figure 16-2, pg 359.)

The spinal cord is comprised of gray matter where neuronal cell bodies reside, surrounded by white matter that consists of ascending axons to the brain, descending axons from the brain, and propriospinal axons connecting different regions of the cord (Figure 4-2). Myelin, a white protein, wraps each ascending, descending, and propriospinal axon and is critical in facilitating fast signal propagation. It is possible to identify specific regions of the cord from cross sections based on the relationship between the gray matter and the white matter.


Organization of the gray and white matter of the spinal cord. (Reproduced with permission from Kandel ER, Schwartz JH,Jessell TM, Siegelbaum SA, Hudspeth AJ. Principles of Neural ...

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