Load-related afferent information modifies the magnitude and timing of hindlimb muscle activity during stepping in decerebrate animals and spinal cord-injured humans and animals, suggesting that the spinal cord mediates load-related locomotor responses. In this study, we found that stepping on a treadmill by adult rats that received complete, midthoracic spinal cord transections as neonates could be altered by loading the hindlimbs using a pair of small robotic arms. The robotic arms applied a downward force to the lower shanks of the hindlimbs during the stance phase and measured the position of the lower shank during stepping. No external force was applied during the swing phase of the step. When applied bilaterally, this stance force field perturbed the hindlimb trajectories so that the ankle position was shifted downward during stance. In response to this perturbation, both the stance and step cycle durations decreased. During swing, the hindlimb initially accelerated toward the normal, unperturbed swing trajectory and then tracked the normal trajectory. Bilateral loading increased the magnitude of the medial gastrocnemius electromyographic (EMG) burst during stance and increased the amplitude of the semitendinosus and rectus femoris EMG bursts. When the force field was applied unilaterally, stance duration decreased in the loaded hindlimb, while swing duration was decreased in the contralateral hindlimb, thereby preserving interlimb coordination. These results demonstrate the feasibility of using robotic devices to mechanically modulate afferent input to the injured spinal cord during weight-supported locomotion. In addition, these results indicate that the lumbosacral spinal cord responds to load-related input applied to the lower shank during stance by modifying step timing and muscle activation patterns, while preserving normal swing kinematics and interlimb coordination.
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