Despite the diverse methods vertebrates use for locomotion, there is evidence that components of the locomotor central pattern generator (CPG) are conserved across species. When zebrafish begin swimming early in development, they perform short episodes of activity separated by periods of inactivity. Within these episodes, the trunk flexes with side-to-side alternation and the traveling body wave progresses rostrocaudally. To characterize the distribution of the swimming CPG along the rostrocaudal axis, we performed transections of the larval zebrafish spinal cord and induced fictive swimming using N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). In both intact and spinalized larvae, bursting is found throughout the rostrocaudal extent of the spinal cord, and the properties of fictive swimming observed were dependent on the concentration of NMDA. We isolated series of contiguous spinal segments by performing multiple spinal transections on the same larvae. Although series from all regions of the spinal cord have the capacity to produce bursts, the capacity to produce organized episodes of fictive swimming has a rostral bias: in the rostral spinal cord, only 12 contiguous body segments are necessary, whereas 23 contiguous body segments are necessary in the caudal spinal cord. Shorter series of segments were often active but produced either continuous rhythmic bursting or sporadic, nonrhythmic bursting. Both episodic and continuous bursting alternated between the left and right sides of the body and showed rostrocaudal progression, demonstrating the functional dissociation of the circuits responsible for episodic structure and fine burst timing. These findings parallel results in mammalian locomotion, and we propose a hierarchical model of the larval zebrafish swimming CPG.
- Central pattern generator