When you are first learning how to ride a bicycle or play a musical instrument, your physical movements are uncoordinated at best. But with time and lots of repetition, your brain’s motor neurons create a kind of shorthand between mind and muscle. The associated motions eventually become so ingrained that jumping on a bike or playing scales feels nearly automatic.
What are the cellular underpinnings of how this motor learning process works? In a study published this week in Neuron, a research team led by Dr. Simon Chen of the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine offers new and valuable insights into this enduring mystery of neuroscience.
His lab is focused on unraveling how memories are encoded and stored in the brain, particularly with motor learning, the complex process of how we move and coordinate the muscles of our bodies. With this latest study, Dr. Chen’s research team explored the mechanisms involved in regulating the process of motor memory acquisition and consolidation during repetitive practice.
Dr. Chen, Canada Research Chair in Neural Circuits and Behaviour, says the study’s findings could prove useful for developing therapeutic targets that can help recover motor functions in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a stroke or a brain injury. This is significant because restoring gross motor coordination and regaining lost movements is a very difficult battle for these individuals.
“If we understand how the acquisition of motor skills is regulated in the brain then perhaps one day we can help patients with stroke or Parkinson’s disease regain those skills during the rehabilitation process,” he says.
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