New BBSRC grant awarded for "Foundations of Neuromechanical Systems Biology"
24 October 2012
Dr. Andrew Spence, RCUK Academic Research Fellow, has been awarded a £822k BBSRC grant for a 3-year project entitled “Foundations of Neuromechanical Systems Biology.” With co-investigators Prof. John Hutchinson and Prof. Dominic Wells, this project will use a technique from the frontier of molecular genetics, optogenetics, to tease apart the contributions of the nervous and mechanical systems to fast legged locomotion.
Pushing the limits of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems
“When animals such as mice run quickly, they push the limits of their sensory systems – a misstep could come and go in the same time it takes for information to come in from sense organs, be processed, and a correction be made with muscle activation. The nervous system may be forced to ignore delayed sensory input, and rely instead on the mechanics of its body and musculoskeletal system for stability. Or, it may be able to overlay delayed sensory information on the mechanics of the fast moving body in an intelligent way. Understanding how evolution has solved this problem would give us a much fuller picture of how animals control their locomotion, which is important neuroscience, basic biology, and medicine; and could inspire more agile legged robots,” says Dr. Spence.
Integrative, systems biology: from molecular genetics to locomotor behaviour
“Combining optogenetics with a neuromechanical approach to understanding the control of locomotion is extremely exciting. With optogenetics, specific neurons can be turned on and off, extremely quickly, using light (Figure 1). It relies on our knowledge of genetics to place molecular, light-dependent on/off switches in the membranes of specific neurons. By combining optogenetic manipulation with advanced computer vision methods for real-time tracking of freely running mice, we can causally, reversibly, specifically, and with precise timing, study how animals use their nervous and musculoskeletal systems to move stably at such impressive speeds.”
The project will seek answers to specific questions, such as “How is sensory feedback used during fast locomotion?” and “How does motor noise structure the control optimization performed by the nervous system?” But it also aims to have a broader impact: by developing optogenetic tools and the advanced instrumentation required to do “closed loop” experiments in legged locomotion, we hope to drive the development of a new, systems approach to movement. This new field will aim to discover how movement emerges from the complex, coupled constituents of neurons, muscles, and skeletons, in interaction with the environment, in a manner akin to systems biology at the cellular and molecular levels.
We thank the BBSRC for funding this work.
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