Halifax, NS – A Dalhousie Medical School researcher is one step closer to understanding how spinal neurons control our ability to walk. Dr Rob Brownstone, a neurosurgeon and professor in the departments of surgery and anatomy and neurobiology, has received US$140,000 from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation to investigate a type of nerve cell – found in clusters along the spinal cord – that may control the rhythmic cadence of walking.
"We think of the brain as the master controller of everything we do, but in fact the nerve signals that control walking originate in the spinal cord, not the brain," says Dr Brownstone. He notes that, while scientists learned nearly a hundred years ago that mammals can walk independently of their brains, researchers are still trying to figure out how this is possible.
For the past four years, Dr Brownstone has been using new techniques to try to unravel the mysteries of spinal cord neuron function. He has been working with collaborators around the world to pinpoint which neurons generate the signals that allow us to walk, and then studying their electrical activity. He and a post-doctoral fellow in his lab, Dr Jennifer Wilson, have identified nerve cells – called Hb9 interneurons – which they suspect may control the ability to produce the rhythm of walking.
Now, with the grant from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, Dr Brownstone hopes to prove that Hb9 interneurons are indeed critical to walking – and find which electrical signals activate them to produce the appropriate rhythm.
Dr Brownstone, a researcher in the field of spinal cord physiology for more than 20 years, works closely with other Dalhousie colleagues at the Brain Repair Centre. "My investigations dovetail with studies involving nerve cell regeneration," he notes. "Through understanding basic spinal cord function, we may someday be able to restore walking ability to people who have been paralyzed by spinal cord injury or disease."
Dr Brownstone’s research is funded by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, Project ALS, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation.