The red nucleus (RN) and rubrospinal tract (RST) are important for forelimb motor control. Although the RST is present postnatally in cats, nothing is known about when rubrospinal projections could support motor functions or the relation between the development of the motor functions of the rubrospinal system and the corticospinal system, the other major system for limb control. Our hypothesis is that the RN motor map is present earlier in development than the motor cortex (M1) map, to support early forelimb control. We investigated RN motor map maturation with microstimulation and RST cervical enlargement projections using anterograde tracers between postnatal week 3 (PW3) and PW16. Microstimulation and tracer injection sites were verified histologically to be located within the RN. Microstimulation at PW4 evoked contralateral wrist, elbow, and shoulder movements. The number of sites producing limb movement increased and response thresholds decreased progressively through PW16. From the outset, all forelimb joints were represented. At PW3, RST projections were present within the cervical intermediate zone, with a mature density of putative synapses. In contrast, beginning at PW5 there was delayed and age-dependent development of forelimb motor pool projections and putative rubromotoneuronal synapses. The RN has a more complete forelimb map early in development than previous studies showed for M1, supporting our hypothesis of preferential rubrospinal rather than corticospinal control for early movements. Remarkably, development of the motor pool, not intermediate zone, RST projections paralleled RN motor map development. The RST may be critical for establishing the rudiments of motor skills that subsequently become refined with further CST development.
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