How we move: Dal researchers explore the science of the spinal cord

Melanie Jollymore - June 19, 2014

Dal researchers Dr. Robert Brownstone and Dr. Ying Zhang. (Provided photo)

Two neuroscientists at Dalhousie Medical School have received $1.7 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to answer key questions about how circuits in the spinal cord allow us to move in coordinated, rhythmic ways, independent of our thinking minds.

In addition to the substantial CIHR operating grants, Dr. Robert Brownstone, Canada Research Chair in Spinal Cord Circuits, and Dr. Ying Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Medical Neuroscience, were ranked first and second, respectively, in CIHR’s 2014 competition in the vast area of movement and exercise — beating out some 50 other top-notch investigators for the top two spots
 
“I think our top-two rankings speak to the success of the integrated spinal cord research group we’re developing here at Dalhousie,” says Dr. Rob Brownstone, who shared the first-place ranking in the same CIHR competition four years ago with another of his collaborators, Dalhousie’s Dr. Jim Fawcett.

“Our individual research is stronger because of our very close working relationships with our colleagues. We share data, we share ideas, we push each other forward in our thinking, so we progress much faster than any of us could on our own.”

Unravelling a great mystery


Dr. Brownstone and Dr. Zhang work in a closely knit group of six principal investigators, most recently joined by Dr. Turgay Akay from Columbia University in New York, who bring complementary approaches to understanding the great mystery of the spinal cord and its role in controlling movement. The other researchers in the group are Dr. Victor Rafuse, Dr. James Fawcett and Dr. Angelo Iulianella, The researchers’ mix of expertise and methods makes this group — together with about 40 trainees and research staff who work with them — unique in Canada and possibly the world.
 
Dr. Brownstone and Dr. Zhang are pioneers in understanding how our spinal cords generate the controlled, rhythmic movements that enable us to walk, run, swim and — in the case of Dr. Brownstone — to control our grasp of objects in our hands.

The most recent awards from CIHR will enable Drs. Brownstone and Zhang and their teams to identify specific families of neurons in the spinal cord and map how these neurons control subconscious movements, such as the alternating gait of walking. Such fundamental knowledge is the first step to devising strategies for preserving and restoring movement in the face of neurological injury and disease (including ALS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury).

“Scientists first realized that the spinal cord can produce coordinated movement independent of the thinking brain in 1911, and the field took off in the 1960s—but it’s only been since 2000, and the advent of genetic techniques, that we’ve really been able to unravel the workings of spinal cord circuits in detail,” says Dr. Brownstone, who with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Tuan Bui made the landmark discovery, published in Neuron in April 2013, of the spinal cord circuit that controls the hand’s grasp.

An economic driver with a human goal


The spinal cord research group at Dalhousie is attracting top talent from around the world to Halifax. Investigators and trainees hail from centres all across Canada and the United States, as well as from China, Egypt, Poland, France and Sweden.

“Together, this group attracts millions of dollars in research funding and creates high-skills jobs for young people in Nova Scotia,” says Dr. Brownstone “This kind of research is a real economic driver in a new economy where knowledge is the primary product. Our ultimate goal, however, is to pave the way for future revolutionary treatments to restore movement in people with neurological disorders.”

Another economic benefit of such a thriving research group comes from its ability to attract major scientific conferences.

As a result of their growing stature as a leading force in understanding spinal cord circuits and movement, the Dalhousie researchers were successful in their bid to host the 2014 International Motoneuron Meeting in Halifax from June 15 to 19. This premier scientific event — most recently held in Sydney, Australia and before that, in Paris, France — has brought 135 top neuroscientists and clinician-investigators to the city to share the latest findings about motor neurons and the diseases that affect them.

In 2013, Dr. Brownstone hosted the Canadian Spinal Cord Conference in Halifax. Both the 2014 and 2013 conferences received grants from the Brain Repair Centre, which recognizes the economic, as well as the scientific benefits, of hosting major conferences.

“The fact that we’re hosting the 2014 International Motoneuron Meeting in Halifax shows just how far we have come in the eyes of the global scientific community,” notes Dr. Brownstone, who is also a neurosurgeon at Capital Health. “We’re now among the world’s leading groups in the fundamental science of how we move.”


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