Harvard Researchers Study Motor Dysfunction Treatments

New research from Harvard could provide a solution to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's.

brain researchBrain photo via Shutterstock

New research from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) could eventually lead to more effective treatment for patients suffering from motor dysfunction as a result of strokes or Alzheimer’s, a report from the school says. And with new research saying that Alzheimer’s numbers could triple by 2050, it couldn’t come at a better time. The potential breakthrough hinges on Maurice Smith, a SEAS associate professor of bioengineering who is leading a study focusing on the relationship between external and internal brain activity.

Smith explains in the report that the brain functions in two ways: extrinsically and intrinsically. Extrinsic activity is based upon things happening outside of the body (Smith’s example is deciding which piece of a cookie to eat), while intrinsic activity refers to the internal processes needed for the body to carry out actions. The relationship between these two types of brain function, the report says, can likely explain how we develop motor control and motor memory—the faculties that, when broken down, result in dysfunction and inability to complete simple tasks like eating and getting dressed.

“There’s no question that our actions are inherently spatial, but the nature of the coordinate frame used in motor memory to represent space for action planning has been hotly debated,” explains Smith. “The predominant idea had been that in memory we maintain separate intrinsic and extrinsic representations of action and translate between the two when necessary. But our work shows that memory representations are combinatorial rather than separate.”

If that terminology makes your head spin, here’s the gist of Smith’s point : The brain function that scientists previously believed allowed the brain only to toggle between intrinsic and extrinsic function could actually be responsible for coding motor memory.

So how can this discovery help people with motor dysfunction? According to Smith and his team, testing subjects who do not have a motor disorder—as they are doing in what they call the Neuromotor Control Lab—can help them understand how and why cognitive function breaks down, and what to do about it. As Jordan Brayanov, a SEAS graduate student working with Smith, says in the report:

“You cannot break real human brains for science, and it is difficult to work with patients who are already exhibiting cognitive deficits, so our lab is set up to mimic these conditions in healthy people—in our case, a lot of Harvard undergraduates,” says Brayanov. “Understanding how our bodies learn to reach and grasp provides us with insights about how the nervous system works. Just as importantly, we can start to see what may be happening when it’s not working, when a person has some kind of motor disorder as a result of neurologic disease.”

Advances in motor function understanding could have a major impact not only on the lives and well-being of the millions of people with diseases like Alzheimer’s, but also on the over-burdened healthcare system since, as Smith notes in the report, fewer people would have to be institutionalized if cognitive function could be maintained. The goal of Smith’s research is to develop non-invasive treatments that, by stimulating certain neurons, could ward off neurodegenerative conditions. The science still needs a great deal of fine-tuning, but the report quotes Smith about what a positive effect success could have:

“If we can do that, we can potentially provide a boost in quality of life as well as a savings in healthcare expenditure,” says Smith. “Even if it only means staving off a motor deficit for six months, in the case of a progressive neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, that’s still six months more of independent living.”