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The Giszter Lab - Modular Neuromechanics and Motor Primitives Research

Current research centers on three main projects:

Project 1: To understand modularity in the spinal circuits that organize purposeful reflex and rhythmic movements, even when separated from the brain.

We seek to record in spinal cord, muscles, and to analyze the structure of the musculoskeletal system and movements composition to understand the circuitry involved at the spinal level. Our core hypothesis in this project is that the spinal circuits are modular and organized into collections of motor primitives. These are building blocks best suited to constructing movements that are of the highest evolutionary significance, and that every animal of a species must perform routinely in order to survive and reproduce. This project is currently moving forward as a collaboration with the Sanger Lab at USC using new stochastic dynamic operator techniques to analyze neural recordings from spinal cord.

Project 2: To understand the plastic interactions and cooperative plasticity of cortical and spinal systems.

We use neurorobotics, brain machine interfaces (BMIs), and robot rehabilitation and a range of recording techniques. We seek to record neuromotor activity during normal voluntary tasks, and novel tasks (e.g., using brain machine interfaces and reinforced changes in walking), and after spinal cord injuries when descending systems are severely challenged for compensations. We focus on trunk and hindlimb motor cortex. Our core hypothesis in this project is that cortical plasticity works cooperatively with modular spinal systems, to augment, extend or replace the spinal functions as needed for novel skills or recovery of function after injury. This work links naturally to spinal cord injury research, to neuroengineering and augmenting technologies, and to basic science questions in motor control. This project is currently funded by the Craig Neilsen Foundation, and also involves collaborations with the Tom and Dougherty Laboratories at Drexel.

Project 3: To develop new electrode technologies for spinal cord and brainstem recordings.

This project was conceived in support of the others, because of the limitations of existing recording technologies and paucity of tools available. The new electrode technologies we are testing are based on braided electrodes of ultrafine wires that can bend and flex without overlystressing the surrounding brain or spinal cord (which are fragile and have the consistency of soft jello). Our core hypothesis is that the open lattice and high flexibility of braids will minimize tissue inflammation and stress and enable long term recordings and neural interfaces, even in otherwise very difficult brain and spinal cord sites. Project 3 site. These three projects require collaborations of neuroscientists, of engineers, and thus of neuroengineers trained to speak the languages and collaborate across both domains.

We recruit and train both neuroscientists, kinesiologists, biomechanicians, and bioengineers as graduate students in order to have a team that talks and operates freely across disciplines.

Research Translational Potential

  • Motor modularity after injury and rehabilitation
  • Neuroengineeering and new neuroprostheses designs
  • Neurorobotic rehabilitation strategies to promote functional recovery after spinal cord or other injury

Research Funding

Research in the Laboratory has been variously funded by NIH through NINDS and NIBIB, by NSF through the CRCNS Program, by the Craig Neilsen Foundation, by the PA Department of Health through the CURE awards. Laboratory staff have also been funded by Drexel University Graduate Scholarships and Fellowships, by the Brody Foundation, and by a Gatsby Foundation. The Laboratory has also been a past participant in the Drexel Spinal Cord Research Center NIH NINDS funded Program Project Grants (from the lab's inception in 1994 to 2003).

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