Babies, rats share walking ancestry
November 17th, 2011
04:15 PM ET

Babies, rats share walking ancestry

Children typically start walking independently when they are about 1 year old. But scientists say that even healthy newborns have the capacity to start stepping and have a pattern of neural activity similar to that of other animals.

Research published in the journal Science suggests that baby humans, rats, cats, macaque and guinea fowl all share similar neural mechanisms for locomotion. Human adults, on the other hand, have a distinct pattern of signals, which is derived from the basics seen in babies.

"We have a common history ... a common ancestral network, which originated locomotion in the first animals, the first vertebrates," said study co-author Francesco Lacquaniti, scientist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy.

"Mother nature did not discard what it had. It does not scrap hardware," he added. "Indeed, the adult locomotion of adults is unique. But it seems to derives from common ancestry, as for the other animals."

Researchers looked at healthy babies between 2 and 7 days old. They used an electromyograph to monitor the electrical activity of the babies' muscles. Then, a pediatrician lifted the child and lowered him or her on the table. As soon as the baby's feet touched the table, he or she would start stepping.

Motor neurons, which send signals to muscles, have the basic commands ready in a newborn baby. But only half the circuitry for walking is ready at birth, Lacquaniti said. In fact, the stepping reflex disappears a few weeks after birth. It then reappears as intentional walking at about 10 months, the time it takes for the nervous system to mature and develop the signals missing at birth.

Lacquaniti and colleagues also looked at toddlers, older children and adults and saw how the patterns of the infants get modified and adapted as a child ages. In adult walking, the pulses of activity are shorter than in babies, which is useful for the older folks because less energy is spent.

"This is why babies start walking at 1 year of age, but they wobble," Lacquaniti said. "It takes several more years to then fine-tune and develop adult-like commands, which are much briefer."

Researchers wanted to see how this process of the development of locomotion compares to that of other animals. They looked at rats, cats, macaque and guinea fowl and found similar patterns of neural activity as in newborn human babies.

A 2-year-old human child is smarter than an adult monkey, but the two have comparable locomotive abilities, Lacquaniti said. Separate research has shown that the bigger the animal's brain, the longer the time after fertilization required to develop independent locomotion.

This does not mean humans walk better than other animals. In fact, there are significant costs associated with moving with two legs instead of four: for instance, greater instability and back pain because we have to sustain the weight of our bodies.

There are clinical implications to all this. Understanding the neural mechanisms of walking can help with developing rehabilitation tools for people who are paralyzed and cannot walk.

"If one knows the exact shape of the neural commands, one hopes to use similar commands in prosthetic limbs, retrain the paralyzed patient to relearn to walk, so to speak," Lacquaniti said.

soundoff (558 Responses)
  1. paganguy

    "A 2-year-old human child is smarter than an adult monkey"
    But I have seen some adult humans not as smart as a 2 year old monkey.

    November 17, 2011 at 22:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Right on the money

      You, my friend, are dead-on

      November 18, 2011 at 15:53 | Report abuse |
    • NA

      Well, that's because in many human individuals the brain begins to deteriorate after about 5-6 years of age.

      November 19, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse |
    • Joe Whitehurst

      That's why they've been called "rug rats" since the invention of rugs.

      November 21, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
  2. Leslie

    This has to be one of the stupidest reports I've ever read. Can you imagine that some idiot is actually FUNDING this clown's research?

    November 17, 2011 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • yep

      It's funny that i was saying the same thing only seconds before I scrolled to your post.

      November 17, 2011 at 23:17 | Report abuse |
    • Ratssmarterthanevangelicals

      Let me guess: you are an evangelical Christian that denies the fact of biological evolution. People like you should be denied the right to reproduce. The world would be a much smarter and better place if that were the case.

      November 17, 2011 at 23:27 | Report abuse |
    • Hugo

      How do you know what will be produced of value from this research?

      Could you have predicted what would have been produced as a result of the discovery of quantum mechanics over 100 years ago?

      November 17, 2011 at 23:36 | Report abuse |
    • cja

      THis article make the research seem pointless only because the author dumbed doug the writing. I'm sure had you read about this in Nature it would be deferent. There is even practical use for this - Walking machines. Today we live in the era of "rolling machine" cars bikes, wheel chairs, shopping carts, they all roll. But wait. The next thing will be walking machines that can walk up stairs and on dirt paths and on the tops on fences like cats and on power lines lie rats. We will need to know how people learn to walk before we can teach our machines. Think of prosthetic legs for those who have lost theirs. Lots of use for this kind of fundimnetalreasesrch

      November 18, 2011 at 00:02 | Report abuse |
    • UncleM

      Read the last couple of paragraphs. Looks like you're the idiot, Leslie.

      November 18, 2011 at 00:39 | Report abuse |
    • Paulwisc

      Someone who doesn't understand science is in no position to criticize it.

      November 18, 2011 at 01:04 | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Ratssmarterthanevangelicals: In other words, you believe the world would be a better place if only people who agree with you were allowed to reproduce.

      However much it's proponents declare otherwise, evolution is not a fact. This article is a case in point. That baby humans and other animals have similar electrical impulses is an observation and therefore a fact. However, since researchers have not and cannot measure the electrical impulses of the first vertebrates, they do not know that they had similar impulses. Similarly, there is a lack of observations to indicate that having similar impulses indicates common ancestry. These statements are just speculations. Scientists, of course, are free to speculate, as long as they don't label their speculations as 'fact.'

      And before you decry 'evangelicals,' note that my argument in no way derives from religion.

      November 18, 2011 at 01:55 | Report abuse |
    • Angela Birch

      Lucky leslie, doesn't know someone who has a spinal injury or a motor neuron disease that might be helped by the information developed from this study. It seems there is always someone who decides if it doesn't ecancer instantly it is a waste.
      How do we have so many ignorant people with no concept of science ? Homeschooling with an inept curriculum.

      November 18, 2011 at 02:19 | Report abuse |
    • JL

      If you haven't yet, read ratssmarterthanevangelicals post and then read Bobs. One is articulate, completely logical and respectful, the other hateful rhetoric. I'll let you decide which is which. Although I don't completely blame 'rats', the argument for common ancestry is a tough one to make. Since there is no known natural process that can consistently add information to the genome, the evolutionist is left making emotionally charged, illogical statements. If only they could shout "EVOLUTION IS FACT!" loud enough, perhaps the world will believe them.

      November 18, 2011 at 02:53 | Report abuse |
    • GPC


      So called evolutionists say that evolution is a fact simply because that's where the evidence points. You have a right to not accept it. But considering the importance of evolutionary principles in medical research, you should be thankful that there are people that do accept it. Medical advances brought about through an understanding of evolutionary principles is making your and everybody elses life better. So, reject evolution if you want. But keep in mind we need some people to accept it, so we can continue making medical advances.

      November 18, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse |
    • Texrat

      How ironic, Leslie. Yours was one of the stupidest comments I've ever read.

      November 20, 2011 at 21:53 | Report abuse |
  3. yep

    huh? ..... oh right comrade,pass the vodka!

    November 17, 2011 at 23:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. M_j

    What is the m animal and these people are weird my daughter is better than a rat

    November 17, 2011 at 23:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jimmymax

      No, she isn't. I'd take the rat any day.

      November 17, 2011 at 23:45 | Report abuse |
  5. Zoundsman

    Too bad some babies didn't have a real option to "drop and run" from inept mothers.

    November 17, 2011 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. thes33k3r


    November 17, 2011 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. kim

    ...or father's ~

    November 18, 2011 at 00:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. vladim

    the russian is spam it says things about restoration of hair 🙂

    November 18, 2011 at 00:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. DougieT

    I always wondered why they call toddlers "rug rats".

    November 18, 2011 at 01:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. phneutral


    November 18, 2011 at 01:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Juan

    The reason human beings like to get drunk, is because it makes you waddle around like a baby trying to walk. And we are ll yearning to be young again. And thats natural. Being natural is good so im gonna go get wasted

    November 18, 2011 at 01:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Ryan

    Wait, there's no mention of this in the Good Book. Humans can walk because God wanted us to!

    November 18, 2011 at 02:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. joe

    Ratssmarterthanevangelicals is apparantently not smarter than a rat, or an evangelical.

    November 18, 2011 at 02:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. rooney

    @vladim 00:33 Thankyou 🙂 I was curious.

    November 18, 2011 at 03:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. zulu

    Just watch..... someone is going to invent a better baby-trap.

    November 18, 2011 at 04:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. paleo

    This points just as much to a common designer as to a common ancestry, and of course they don't mention this is just wild speculation based on unproven assumptions. Notice how they talk about evolution like it has a mind?:

    ""Mother nature did not discard what it had. It does not scrap hardware," he added."

    it's their god which they worship

    November 18, 2011 at 04:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Gaunt

      No it doesnt. Please stop lying. There is NO evidence of a common designer, or of a designer or of design. None whatsoever. Zero. It is a silly fairy tale.

      And by the way, even if there WAS such evidence (which there is not) your claim here is even more absurd. How does similar motor neuron structure indicate a 'common designer'? Is your god so clueless and inept that he has to keep repeating the same patterns and borrowing from previous work to get it right? Your sky-santa is supposed to be omnipotent, why are there any similarities at ALL? Every single person could be different and unique under an omnipotent gods creation. The only way you might claim these similarities point to a common designer is if you are proposing that your god is lazy and like to cut corners.

      Stop believeing in fairy tales, and go study actual science.

      November 18, 2011 at 04:41 | Report abuse |
  17. Jt_flyer

    Just like the American congress where babies and rats walk all over one another.

    November 18, 2011 at 08:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. marillionjade24

    If you read the entire article, you can see the reason for the research.

    November 18, 2011 at 14:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Myto Senseworth

    this is @ маска для окрашенных волос......лечение не за то, что сумасшедшие

    November 18, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MJK

      что ебет это значит?

      November 18, 2011 at 15:34 | Report abuse |
  20. Myto Senseworth

    бесполезных слов ... вот и все

    November 18, 2011 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. dinak

    I really don't get the point of the article. It has no bearing on anything, and I hope that this "study" wasn't funded by our tax payers. I thought that we only spent money on police, medicaid, medicare, and social security. How about cutting spending on crap like this?

    November 18, 2011 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • hecep

      You know, dinak, if there had been no one in the world except Einsteins like you, we'd now all be living in caves and rubbing sticks together to make fire.

      November 19, 2011 at 08:51 | Report abuse |
    • dhufu

      `Funded by our tax money", assuming it is American who are mad about being taxed`(sorry if I am wrong). My answer is:
      This research is done in Italy and most probably funded by Italien people. American are going to get worse by becoming more ignorant and thinking that they are the only one who can innovate. Check Chinese, the next mega patent will not be anymore from USA but from China and India. You guys are not only losing manufacturing industries but also innovation. Anyhow with 25th level in Math and Science compared to the world, I don't think you can make it into 21 century in innovation. Therefore do your homework and fix your education and try to be less religous.

      November 20, 2011 at 11:42 | Report abuse |
    • Texrat

      Another idiotic, ironic comment. Sad indictment of our educational system.

      November 20, 2011 at 21:56 | Report abuse |
  22. crz

    Please read the article before posting. Had you done that, you would have seen that this research was done at the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy and was not funded by American tax payers. Since you didn't bother to read the article it follows that your opinion of it, (presumably based on the headline,) is completely without merit.

    November 19, 2011 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. ELISSA


    November 19, 2011 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Texrat


      November 20, 2011 at 21:57 | Report abuse |
  24. fossilhund

    Why do CNN science articles that deal even indirectly with evolution attract religion versus no religion proponents who take over the comments on the articles? Can't you two groups go find somewhere else to bash one another, and leave those of us who would like to exhange ideas on the scientific content in these articles Alone?!

    November 19, 2011 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. sam

    Reading this brought to mind a swimming instructor I knew in H.B. Calif back in the 50's that specialized in babies about 1 or 2 months old. She would have them swimming (or able to paddle from her to momy) in less than 1/2 hour. She told me it was natural. I guess as we get a bit older the same process happens with the swimming response as the walking response?

    November 20, 2011 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. cm

    they had to do a study to find this out? all my kids would step if held upright as babies my five month old will walk with hands held.
    babies would walk faster than 1 year old if they wernt kept in swings and cribs all day

    November 20, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Nick

      No, they wouldn't. That's the point of the research. It looks at the aging of the nervous, and questions how much of coordination is learned and how much has to be developed first.

      November 20, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
  27. Mark

    Just the way God made them.

    November 21, 2011 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. P-man

    What my studies have shown is that humans procreate like rats and if we don't put some controls on it, we will wipe out the species. Thank you.

    November 21, 2011 at 12:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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