Cats always land on their feet, but what makes them so agile? Their unique sense of balance has more in common with humans than it may appear. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are studying cat locomotion to better understand how the spinal cord works to help humans with partial spinal cord injury walk and maintain balance.

Their study is published in the journal eNeuro.

Using a mix of experimental studies and computational models, the researchers show that somatosensory feedback, or neural signals from specialized sensors throughout a cat’s body, help inform the spinal cord about the ongoing movement and coordinate the four limbs to keep cats from falling when they encounter obstacles. Research suggests that with those motion-related sensory signals the animal can walk even if the connection between the spinal cord and the brain is partially fractured.  

Understanding the mechanisms of this type of balance control is particularly relevant to older people who often have balance issues and can injure themselves in falls. Eventually, the researchers hope this could bring new understanding to somatosensory feedback’s role in balance control. It could also lead to progress in spinal cord injury treatment because the research suggests activation of somatosensory neurons can improve spinal neural networks’ function below the site of spinal cord damage.

“We have been interested in the mechanisms that make it possible to reactivate injured networks in the spinal cord,” said School of Biological Sciences Professor Boris Prilutsky. “We know from previous studies that somatosensory feedback from moving legs helps activate spinal networks that control locomotion, enabling stable movement.”

[Source(s): Georgia Institute of Technology, Newswise]

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