How do descending inputs from the brain control leg motor circuits to change the way an animal walks? Conceptually, descending neurons are thought to function either as command-type neurons, in which a single type of descending neuron exerts a high-level control to elicit a coordinated change in motor output, or through a more distributed population coding mechanism, whereby a group of neurons, each with local effects, act in combination to elicit a global motor response. The Drosophila Moonwalker Descending Neurons (MDNs), which alter leg motor circuit dynamics so that the fly walks backwards, exemplify the command-type mechanism. Here, we identify several dozen MDN target neurons within the leg motor circuits, and show that two of them mediate distinct and highly-specific changes in leg muscle activity during backward walking: LIN156 neurons provide the hindleg power stroke during stance phase; LIN128 neurons lift the legs at the end of stance to initiate swing. Through these two effector neurons, MDN directly controls both the stance and swing phases of the backward stepping cycle. MDN exerts these changes only upon the hindlegs; the fore- and midlegs follow passively through ground contact. These findings suggest that command-type descending neurons can also operate through the distributed control of local motor circuits.Competing Interest StatementThe authors have declared no competing interest.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience