Muscle, cutaneous and joint afferents continuously signal information about the position and movement of individual joints. How does the nervous system extract more global information, for example about the position of the foot in space? To study this question we used microelectrode arrays to record impulses simultaneously from up to 100 discriminable nerve cells in the L6 and L7 dorsal root ganglia (DRG) of the anaesthetized cat. When the hindlimb was displaced passively with a random trajectory, the firing rate of the neurones could be predicted from a linear sum of positions and velocities in Cartesian (x, y), polar or joint angular coordinates. The process could also be reversed to predict the kinematics of the limb from the firing rates of the neurones with an accuracy of 1-2 cm. Predictions of position and velocity could be combined to give an improved fit to limb position. Decoders trained using random movements successfully predicted cyclic movements and movements in which the limb was displaced from a central point to various positions in the periphery. A small number of highly informative neurones (6-8) could account for over 80% of the variance in position and a similar result was obtained in a realistic limb model. In conclusion, this work illustrates how populations of sensory receptors may encode a sense of limb position and how the firing of even a small number of neurones can be used to decode the position of the limb in space.
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