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£1.3m to study how animals initiate locomotion

A tadpole against a background showing a fragment of the computer generated network which can produce its swimming movements

A tadpole against a background showing a fragment of the computer generated network which can produce its swimming movements courtesy of Professor Alan Roberts

Press release issued: 22 November 2013

A £1.3 million grant to understand how the brain makes the decision to start locomotion has been awarded to University of Bristol researchers by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

They will work with biologists at the University of St Andrews and computer scientists at Plymouth University to understand and build computer models of how sensory signals are interpreted by the brain and lead to the initiation of locomotion.

Most animals, like ourselves, can walk, run, swim or fly away when appropriate.  Even though this response seems very simple compared to our ability to think, talk or learn, the details of the way nervous circuits in the brain and spinal cord initiate locomotion remain poorly understood.  In mammals, which have been studied most intensively, we have a broad knowledge of the areas of the brain and types of nerve cells which control locomotion, but the nervous system is astonishingly complex.

To simplify the problem Dr Steve Soffe and Professor Alan Roberts in the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences chose a very small animal, the newly hatched frog tadpole where they have detailed knowledge about the nerve cells controlling swimming.

In a three year programme, the labs in Bristol and St Andrews will use optical imaging to find key nerve cells then make electrical recordings to study their properties, connections and responses to the stimuli which start and influence swimming.

In parallel in Plymouth, computer models of the networks in the tadpole brain will be built to understand the basic requirements to start and generate swimming activity and extend models of decision making down to the level of nerve cells, which is where decisions are ultimately made.

A shared evolutionary origin means that although the tadpole nervous system is small and young, it is built on the same principles as all vertebrates. The research findings should therefore provide broader insights into how brain networks controlling locomotion are organised.  In the brain of mammals, like ourselves, these networks are remarkably complex and when they go wrong, they cause severe problems in initiating locomotion, like Parkinsonism.  The researchers hope that study of a much simpler system may uncover core principles which lie concealed in the adult brain.

Dr Soffe said: "This exciting collaborative project between the Universities of Bristol, St Andrews and Plymouth will allow us to tackle fundamental questions of motor control across a broad front from individual nerve cell properties right through to computer modelling of whole brain networks."

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