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Stanford scientists uncover new clues to how neurons control movement

The underlying process of how neurons control physical movement has puzzled researchers for some time. That's because some neurons, which generate the electrical signals to trigger muscles, tend to fire in seemingly erratic patterns and create opposite motions. So in practice, if you go to kick a soccer ball with your right leg, select nerve cells may transmit impulses that appear as if they are directing your leg to the left.

But Stanford researchers say there is a method to this apparent madness. In a paper (subscription required) recently published in Neuron, they show that these contrarian neurons aren't contrary at all -they just take a different path in accomplishing their goal. An article in yesterday's Stanford Report explains why researchers believe the illogical behavior of neurons could be completely logical:

If you compare the neuron's behavior to a pendulum in a clock, things begin to make sense ... In order to get a pendulum to swing to the right, you first have to pull it to the left. And as a pendulum swings back and forth, it will be moving in different directions at different times, even as all its activity is directed at keeping the proper time.


"It basically comes down to don't think of planning a movement as something that involves creating an explicit blueprint," [lead author of the paper] Mark Churchland, PhD, said. "Think of it as getting your motor system wound up in just the right way so that when you release it, it does just the right thing."

Armed with this new information, researchers are working to determine if the absence of a "blueprint" results in the brain having to determine from scratch how to activate muscles each time you move.

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