Columbia University in the City of New York




How Patterns of Brain Activity Direct Specific Body Movements

From the lab of Thomas M. Jessell, PhD, Columbia's Zuckerman Institute

Mathematical visualizations, or matrices, of the correlations of neural activity (Credit: Andrew Miri/Jessell Lab/Columbia's Zuckerman Institute).

Life moves to survive.

Consider the fish that escapes a predator by swishing its tail, or the bird who communicates with its young by vibrating her vocal cords. Movement is how living creatures interact with their environments and each other.

At Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, we explore how the nervous system gives us the power to move every one of our parts. How do some nerves help our eyes to smoothly swivel and track an object zipping through the air? How do other nerves guide our hands to deftly reach out and grab that object? And how do our brains plan our actions before we even begin them?

Our researchers create molecular tools that illuminate nerve cells in the spinal cord that are critical for movement, and mathematical tools that detect brain-activity patterns important for coordinating muscles. What we are discovering could help athletes and dancers – and all of us – to better understand how our brains control our bodies. This fundamental research could one day inform efforts to treat impairments of movement caused by physical injuries or diseases such as Parkinson’s.

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Videos About Movement


Developed by Richard Mann and Columbia Physics Professor Szabolcs Marka, Flywalker is a combination apparatus and software program that pays close attention to an insect’s steps. The insect strolls over a piece of glass in the device. At the same time, light beamed into the glass bends — much in the same way that light shimmers in a swimming pool — resulting in bursts of light where the fly touches the glass. A video camera captures those bursts and then feeds them into software that reconstructs the fly’s movements, step by step.