Numerous animal behaviors, such as locomotion in vertebrates, are produced by rhythmic contractions that alternate between two muscle groups. The neuronal networks generating such alternate rhythmic activity are generally thought to rely on pacemaker cells or well-designed circuits consisting of inhibitory and excitatory neurons. However, experiments in organotypic cultures of embryonic rat spinal cord have shown that neuronal networks with purely excitatory and random connections may oscillate due to their synaptic depression, even without pacemaker cells. In this theoretical study, we investigate what happens if two such networks are symmetrically coupled by a small number of excitatory connections. We discuss a time-discrete mean-field model describing the average activity and the average synaptic depression of the two networks. Depending on the parameter values of the depression, the oscillations will be in phase, antiphase, quasiperiodic, or phase trapped. We put forward the hypothesis that pattern generators may rely on activity-dependent tuning of synaptic depression.

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