Neural control of skilled movement
Movement shapes our interaction with the world. Amongst the diversity of mammalian behaviors, dexterous limb movements represent some of the most impressive and indispensable achievements of our motor system. If you think about all the ways you use your limbs and hands every day — drinking your coffee, driving your car, buttoning your shirt — it becomes apparent how debilitating it would be to lose the ability to perform these kinds of actions. Yet we usually don't give a second thought to the intricate neural circuits that orchestrate such behaviors. Somehow we are able to coordinate the activity of dozens of muscles to propel our arms, hands and fingers through space with remarkable speed and precision. Despite the critical role these behaviors play in our daily lives, little is known about how specific neural circuits control skilled limb movements and ensure that when we reach for a goal, we succeed.
The central aim of my lab’s research is to use genetic tools in mice, which allow us to access and manipulate distinct neural circuits one at a time, to identify how the nervous system controls skilled movement. We use a multidisciplinary approach, taking advantage of genetic and viral tools, anatomical analysis, electrophysiological recording, imaging and detailed motor behavioral tests, to identify how neural circuits solve the many challenges of motor control. One of our major areas of focus is a set of neural circuits that link the spinal cord with the brain — we think that by providing constant information about ongoing motor output, these neural pathways help to establish the rapid coordination and precision of skilled movement. By clarifying how discrete neural circuits work together to collectively drive dexterous behaviors, our research aims to provide a better understanding of motor function — and dysfunction. Because fine movements of the arm and hand are often affected by neurodegenerative disease and injury, identifying the mechanisms by which the brain shapes skilled movements could help lay the foundation for better diagnosis and treatment of motor deficits as well as more effective design of assistive technologies.