PhD Defense

Friday March 23, 2018 3:00 PM
Speaker: Luke Urban, Computation and Neural Systems, Caltech
Location: Gates-Thomas 135

Title: "An Electrophysiological Study of Voluntary Movement and Spinal Cord Injury"

Voluntary movement is generated from the interaction between neurons in our brain and the neurons in our spinal cord that engage our muscles. A spinal cord injury destroys the connection between these two regions, but parts of their underlying neural circuits survive. A new class of treatment (the brain-machine interface) takes advantage of this fact by either a) recording neural activity from the brain and predicting the intended movement (neural prosthetics) or b) stimulating neural activity in the spinal cord to facilitate muscle activity (spinal stimulation). This thesis covers new research studying the brain-machine interface and its application for spinal injury.

First, the electrical properties of the microelectrode (the main tool of the brain-machine interface) are studied during deep brain recording and stimulation. This work shows that the insulation coating the electrode forms a capacitor with the surrounding neural tissue. This capacitance causes large spikes of voltage in the surrounding tissue during deep brain stimulation, which will cause electrical artifacts in neural recordings and may damage the surrounding neurons. This work also shows that a coaxially shielded electrode will block this effect.

Second, the activity of neurons in the parietal cortex is studied during hand movements, which has applications for neural prosthetics. Prior work suggests that the parietal cortex encodes a state-estimator [1], which combines sensory feedback with the internal efference copy to predict the movement of the hand. To test this idea, we used a visual lag to misalign sensory feedback from the efference copy. The expectation was that a state-estimator would unknowingly combine the delayed visual feedback with the current efference information, resulting in incorrect predictions of the hand. Our results show a drop in correlation between neural activity in the parietal cortex and hand movement during a visual lag, supporting the idea that the parietal cortex encodes a state-estimator. This correlation gradually recovers over time, showing that parietal cortex is adaptive to sensory delays.

Third, while the intention of spinal stimulation was to interact locally with neural circuits in the spinal cord, results from the clinic show that electrical stimulation of the lumbosacral enlargement enables paraplegic patients to regain voluntary movement of their legs [2]. This means that spinal stimulation facilitates communication across an injury site. To further study this effect, we developed a new behavioral task in the rodent. Rats were trained to kick their right hindlimb in response to an auditory cue. The animals then received a spinal injury that caused paraplegia. Two months after injury, the animals recovered the behavior (they could kick in response to the cue), but only during spinal stimulation. Their recovered behavior was slower and more stereotyped than their pre-injury response. Administering quipazine to these rodents disrupted their ability to respond to the cue, suggesting that serotonin plays an important role in the recovered pathway. This work proves that the new behavioral task is a successful tool for studying the recovery of voluntary movement.

Future work will combine cortical recordings with this behavioral task in the rodent to study plasticity in the nervous system and to improve treatment of spinal cord injuries.

[1] Mulliken, Grant H., Sam Musallam, and Richard A. Andersen. "Forward estimation of movement state in posterior parietal cortex." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences105.24 (2008): 8170-8177.
[2] Harkema, Susan, et al. "Effect of epidural stimulation of the lumbosacral spinal cord on voluntary movement, standing, and assisted stepping after motor complete paraplegia: a case study." The Lancet 377.9781 (2011): 1938-1947.


Advisor : Professor Joel Burdick

Contact: Minah Bereal