Public Release: 

OU biologist awarded NSF grant to study spinal cord circuits controlling limb movements

University of Oklahoma

A University of Oklahoma biology professor will study multifunctional and specialized spinal cord nerve cells that control leg movements with a National Science Foundation grant in the amount of $680,000 for the four-year project.

Ari Berkowitz, professor in the Department of Biology, OU College of Arts and Sciences, will focus on the differences between the multifunctional and specialized spinal cord nerve cells to understand what neurotransmitters they use and what connections they make. Berkowitz will collaborate with the University of Glasgow in Scotland to test nervous system tissue in laboratory models.

"We want to understand how the central nervous system selects and generates an appropriate movement for each circumstance. The system may rely on separate neurons specialized for each type of movement or a distributed network of multifunctional neurons. Studies suggest that the spinal cord uses a combination of multifunctional and specialized interneurons, but how it does so is unknown for limb movements," said Berkowitz.

"We will assess how multifunctional spinal networks produce distinct types of limb movements and determine why spinal networks require some behaviorally specialized interneurons," Berkowitz explained. "Findings from this project will reveal the organization of the normal spinal cord circuits controlling different types of limb movements."

The broader impacts of this research involve mentoring to students with an interest in becoming scientists, broadening participation in research and improving public engagement and scientific literacy. Student training is especially valuable in Oklahoma where there are fewer biology research opportunities. Teams perform annual neurobiology demonstrations at public schools and science museums.

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For more information about this project, contact Ari Berkowitz at ari@ou.edu.

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