The Neural Networks needed for Bipedalism & the Human Brain’s Adaptive Capacity

Bipedalism has graced our blog several times before, but we’ve mostly stuck to using comparative anatomy to explain the how’s and why’s to our unique way of movement. There’s new research coming from the Kennedy Krieger Institute that gives us a window into the adaptations and specific requirements the brain has made to accommodate bipedalism.

Specifically, after subjugating people to a whole lot of different experiments on treadmills with fancy infared computerized tracking, Amy Bastian observed that people can learn and,

“store different walking patterns for forward versus backward walking simultaneously, with no interference between the two, revealing that separate brain systems control the two directions of walking….”

This lead her to conclude that,

“there are separate adaptable networks controlling each leg and there are also separate networks controlling leg movements, e.g., forward or backward walking. These findings are contrary to the currently accepted theory that leg movements and adaptations are directed by a single control circuit in the brain.”

Her work is published in Nature Neuroscience, and I’ll forewarn you that this paper doesn’t have an anthropological scope as much as it has a clinical, rehabilitation one. Bastian aims to use this research to help people recover from strokes, hemispherectomies, and other forms of brain damage. But how this research supplements physical anthropology is pretty remarkable.

This paper gives us examples of how a pattern of pattern of changes in independent neural controllers for left and right legs can be rewired. That tells us the human brain is very modular and malleable. I feel that being able to reroute the neural networks involved in controlling movement is testament to the adaptive capacity of the brain. And I wonder if similar studies can be done with chimps, considering they have been working out on treadmills recently? I wonder how hardwired other primates are to their form of motility?

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