By Sandhya Gopaul
“What the brain can conceive, the body can do”. How many times have we reminded ourselves of this motivating sentence and been able to reach our goals indeed? Yet, this quote has its limitations once the brain is injured. From the moment I started studying my Bachelor’s degree in Physiotherapy, I have always been fascinated by the immense tapped or untapped potential that the brain offers and there is so much more that we are yet to learn or discover about this black box. As part of my PhD, I am currently investigating how the sensory and motor cortices of the brain interact with the upper limbs. I am also testing rehabilitation strategies that aim to optimally prime the sensory and motor brain networks so as to improve sensation, movement and function amongst chronic stroke survivors. My main research interests are into applying the principles of neuroscience to devise novel rehabilitation interventions to restore sensorimotor function through the aegis of underlying motor control theories.
To learn more on this topic, I recently visited Professor Mark Latash, affectionately referred to as ‘The Pope of Motor Control’ by his fellow students. Professor Latash is a Distinguished Professor of Kinesiology and Director of the Motor Control Laboratory at the Pennsylvania State University, State college in USA. A physicist at core, Prof Latash explores how the nervous system interacts with body parts to accomplish purposeful movements. His research focuses on advancing understanding of motor control theories, using experiments on motor coordination during standing, stepping, reaching, and multi-digit tasks.
Some of the highlights of my visit were the very engaging and thought-provoking discussions I had with Prof Latash and his international team of PhD students. These discussions were about the different theoretical perspectives on human movement based on a multidisciplinary approach including Physiology, Physics, Physiotherapy, Kinesiology, Sports, Philosophy, Engineering and Mathematics, all happening within the same lab. Learning about the different computational models in neuroscience and motor control further convinced me of the invaluable contribution of fundamental sciences and how these could be translated into clinical rehabilitation to help improve movement and function. Whilst observing different experiments in the lab, I learnt about the different types of force transducers, how they are assembled and calibrated, designing visual feedback on Labview software and the hypotheses underlying the nature of the tasks being investigated. I participated in a study investigating muscle synergies between two individuals during a finger force control task. Again, it reminded me of how amazing the brain is and how fast it can adapt itself and learn! I also attended various seminars of the department as well as observing experiments and measures conducted in the motor control lab at the Hershey Hospital.
Last but not least, everyone would agree that no academic visit is complete without some fun. The very cold temperature of -10 degrees Celsius and the snow, were no barriers to having a very exciting time in State college! I certainly felt privileged to attend a dinner at Prof Latash’s place for the farewell of a student intern. Little did I know that the evening would quickly take a musical turn with everyone singing whole- heartedly. I was even more pleasantly surprised when Prof Latash played the guitar and sang the ‘Motor Control Song’ he previously composed for his colleague.
As my visit comes to an end, I feel content, inspired and even more motivated to resolve some more mysteries of the brain. It’s now time for me to set sail to the next part of my visit in North America to the Sensorimotor control lab of Professor Mindy Levin at McGill University, Montreal.
Sandhya Gopaul (far right) is pictured with Prof Latash and other students.