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Plan of Action: How the Spinal Cord Controls Movement


Understanding the neural circuits in the spinal cord that control movement.

Behavior involves movement. Movement drives simple respiratory programs to keep us breathing, as well as displays of emotion—desire, joy, remorse—that project our inner thoughts and moods. Understanding the workings of the neural circuits that control movement gives us a glimpse of how brain wiring and circuit activity control specific behaviors, including one of the more sophisticated aspects of human motor behavior—the movement of our limbs. Consider baseball player Lou Gehrig's remarkable hand-eye coordination as he compiled one of baseball's most impressive hitting streaks, or the purity of cellist Jacqueline du Pré's tone as she played Haydn's Cello Concerto. Yet, both examples also remind us of the fragility of the motor system and its vulnerability to diseases: Gehrig succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and du Pré to multiple sclerosis. Neural circuits in the spinal cord direct motor programs with impressive precision, ensuring that the many muscles in a limb are activated in precise temporal order. Sensory feedback systems report on the accuracy of motor programs, and signals from the brain permit us to change motor strategies moment by moment to accommodate an ever-changing world.

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