Researchers, Using Worms, Develop Predictive Model to Help Understand Movement Control


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Researchers from Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR) in Boston showed for the first time that they can predict and accurately identify the brain mechanisms involved in movement control, in an animal model. These findings may provide new insights on the cellular mechanism involved in spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and other movement disorders.

Using worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as a model to better understand the human brain, the team demonstrated that a mathematical model they developed could characterize all the connections the worms needed to control movement.

Their study, “Network control principles predict neuron function in the Caenorhabditis elegans connectome,” appeared in the journal Nature.

“I am delighted to have the first direct experimental confirmation of the control principles,” the study’s senior author, physics professor Albert-László Barabási said in a news release. “And I’m equally excited that it offered us a way to systematically predict, with exceptional accuracy, the neurons that are involved in specific processes.”

A team of researchers led by Barabási attempted to understand how the human brain controls each of its communication mechanisms.

Taking advantage of the simple neurological system of worms, the team mapped all communications between neurons and muscles, and developed what it called the “connectome.” Based on this model, they predicted which specific cells would regulate each of the worm’s  movements.

Working with researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge, England, the team validated its predictions. By killing the individual nerve cells with a laser previously related to each movement, they showed how the worm would lose that specific movement.

“Remarkably, the predictions were confirmed, supporting the theory and providing new insight into how individual neurons control body movements,” said William Schafer, a scientist at the MRC lab who led the laser experiments.

This study demonstrates for the first time that it may be possible to pinpoint the mechanisms and individual cells involved in movement control. Translating the worm model into the human brain may change the lives of SMA patients and others with movement disorders.

“We could, in theory, turn something that is uncontrollable into something that is controllable,” said CCNR post-doctoral researcher Emma Towlson, one of the study’s lead authors. “This is the ultimate ambition, but there is a huge leap in the middle. I think the next sensible steps for us are zebrafish, maybe mouse, and then human. The human brain is always the ultimate dream.”