'Electric' fish shed light on ways the brain directs movement

Scientists have long struggled to figure out how the brain guides the complex movement of our limbs, from the graceful leaps of ballerinas to the simple everyday act of picking up a cup of coffee. Using tools from robotics and neuroscience, two Johns Hopkins University researchers have found some tantalizing clues in an unlikely mode of motion: the undulations of tropical fish.

Their findings, published in the January 31 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, shed new light on the communication that takes place between the brain and body. The fish research may contribute to important medical advances in humans, including better prosthetic limbs and improved rehabilitative techniques for people suffering from strokes, cerebral palsy and other debilitating conditions.

"All animals, including humans, must continually make adjustments as they walk, run, fly or swim through the environment. These adjustments are based on feedback from thousands of sense organs all over the body, providing vision, touch, hearing and so on. Understanding how the brain processes this overwhelming amount of information is crucial if we want to help people overcome pathologies," said Noah Cowan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering. In studying the fish and preparing the Neuroscience paper, Cowan teamed up with Eric Fortune, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, also at Johns Hopkins.

Cowan and Fortune focused on the movements of a small, nocturnal South American fish called the "glass knifefish" because of its almost transparent, blade-shaped body. This type of fish does something remarkable: it emits weak electrical signals which it uses to "see" in the dark. According to Fortune, several characteristics, including this electric sense, make this fish a superb subject for the study of how the brain uses sensory information to control locom

Contact: Lisa De Nike
Johns Hopkins University

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