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The science of walking

Simple movement or complex motor output?


By Sandy Woolfrey-Fahey

Most of us don’t think about walking—we just do it.

We move about during our day, performing seemingly simple tasks without much consideration. These “simple” motor tasks are actually quite complex. Many muscles throughout the body must work together in a co-ordinated manner to produce the movement associated with walking.

Rhythmic movement

Dr. Kevin Power, an assistant professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, is interested in how everything in the body works together to produce movement. He was recently awarded an NSERC Discovery Grant to examine the supraspinal and spinal contributions to rhythmic movement in humans.

“Basically the question I am asking is, ‘How do the brain and spinal cord work together to produce complex motor outputs like walking or arm cycling?’” explained Dr. Power.

Dr. Power provides more detail in the following interview.

Pathway disruption

The central nervous system, comprised of the brain and spinal cord, is quite good at telling muscles when to be active or inactive and by how much. However, when a person has motor impairments such as those caused by stroke or spinal cord injury, they often result in a disruption of the pathway between the brain and the spinal cord, reducing one’s ability to move voluntarily.

This scenario is one Dr. Power explores with his students, as he explains in the following video.

Risks of immobility

Due to reduced mobility, people with motor impairments are at an increased risk of obesity, type II diabetes and osteoporosis. An increase in mobility and thus caloric expenditure would help mitigate many of the effects of such diseases. To do so, a gain in motor function is necessary.

Relatively little is known, however, about the brain’s role in producing complex movement or how the excitability of spinal motoneurones, the cells that eventually activate the muscle, influences one’s ability to move. The research conducted in Dr. Power’s lab examines these issues and is aimed at providing a better understanding of how the brain and spinal cord work together during arm cycling.

Arm cycling is a fundamental tool that Dr. Power and his team use to study the central nervous system and is a common exercise used in neurorehabilitation settings. It produces movement similar to walking, as it is rhythmic, is alternating and requires special spinal circuitry that contributes to its production. Arm cycling provides users with a means to exercise while also placing stress on the central nervous system, which may increase one’s motor function.

It takes a team

Dr. Power’s NSERC funding amounts to $125,000 or $25,000 for five years. It will help fund graduate students who help in data collection and recording and will allow for the findings to be disseminated through national and international conferences and presentations.

“The reality is it is a team effort,” said Dr. Power. “The NSERC funding was awarded to me as the principal applicant, but we have graduate students—very smart, capable students—helping collect the data, analyze the data and write the reports. I also share the lab with Dr. Duane Button in our human neurophysiology lab and we co-supervise students, bounce ideas off each other. So, it’s definitely a team.”

This ongoing research program started in 2003 with Dr. Power’s doctoral training. He plans to continue to apply for more funds after the five-year NSERC project to continue this line of questioning.

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