How We're Wired

BRAIN Initiative will study sensory-motor circuitry

To move or not to move. 

That is the question the brain grapples with routinely as it receives a stimulus, decides whether to direct the body to respond with an action, then sends the appropriate signals to control the behavior. It is a common and fundamental process, but we know little about how the brain actually does it.

“New technology allows us to monitor brain activity at high spatial and temporal resolution, and do so over long periods of time,” says Dieter Jaeger, a neuroscientist in the Department of Biology. “This technology is finally opening the door to address questions related to the circuits involved in coordinating the relationship between neural sensing and physical action.”

Jaeger recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative to explore these questions about neural circuitry. He shares the $1.7 million award with Garrett Stanley, a neuroscientist in the Emory–Georgia Tech Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) was launched by President Barack Obama in 2014 as part of a widespread effort to gain fundamental insights for treating a range of brain disorders.

Areas of the brain involved in sensory input and movement include the basal ganglia, the thalamus, and the cortex. What’s less clear is how neural activity flows through these areas, connecting a sensation to a decision to make a movement. Debilitating and difficult to treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and dystonia are caused by dysfunction of this circuitry.

The Stanley lab specializes in tactile sensing and information processing, while the Jaeger lab is focused on motor and muscle coordination and control. For their BRAIN project, Stanley and Jaeger are combining their two areas of expertise and experimenting with a mouse model. Techniques such as genetic voltage sensing will allow them to gain images of cortical electrical activity, with millisecond precision.

“We understand a lot about the biology of the brain,” Jaeger says. “The challenge now is to move beyond biology to algorithm. We hope that our project will lead to an algorithm for basal ganglia and motor cortical circuits involved in movement control.” 

Such an algorithm could generate a computer program to simulate activity of the brain. “It would be a great tool to test our understanding,” Jaeger says. “It’s important, because without such a tool, many clinical approaches to brain malfunction are groping in the dark.”

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