Solving the Mysteries of Movement

Back to feature: The Complex Nature of the Brain

Who’s the researcher?
Dr. Rob Brownstone, Dalhousie University, Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Circuits; professor and neurosurgeon

What’s the issue?
Movement disorders affect millions of Canadians. The condition can range from the sudden, dramatic loss of movement resulting from spinal cord injury, to the gradual and progressive loss of motor control common with as such neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. People with these disorders face daunting challenges every day; they may not be able to walk, to hold their trunk upright, and/or to use their hands to do such ordinary things as getting dressed or feeding themselves. As a result, they may lose their independence, their ability to work, and a great deal of their quality of life.

What's the research?
Dr Rob Brownstone and his team at Dalhousie University want to identify and understand the neural circuits that control movement. In the operating room, they analyse brain circuits in people undergoing treatment for movement disorders. In the lab they explore the neural circuits that interpret and relay signals between the brain and the spinal cord, those that process the signals within the spinal cord, and those that are responsible for communication between the spinal cord and the muscles. Their goal is to identify and characterise these circuits and how they work. Based on this research, strategies can be developed to repair or manipulate circuits to restore and improve motor function.

What's the impact?
Most recently, Dr Brownstone and his team have discovered a spinal cord circuit that controls our ability to use our hands. This discovery opens the door to the possibility of targeted treatments to restore hand function in people with spinal cord injuries and neurodegenerative diseases. The high-impact journal, Neuron, published this breakthrough finding in April 2013. He and his team have also identified spinal cord neurons and circuits that control the degree of muscle contraction produced during motor activity, and circuits s that may play a role in the rhythmic pattern of walking, among other discoveries about our control of movement. These fundamental discoveries provide the foundation of knowledge on which future therapies can be built.

What are some additional resources?

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