Kinesiology ramps up research on the brain-body connection
By Lauren Ebelt & Nicole Geary
There have been many changes in the Department of Kinesiology in its over 100-year history: nine different department names, becoming part of the School of Education in the 1950s and rising in recent years to become the nation’s sixth-ranked place for graduate study in the field.
Since its creation, kinesiology at Michigan State University has been rooted primarily in physical activity and sports. In fact, during its early years, the department was also home to athletics, including football coaching legends Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty and Clarence “Biggie” Munn.
Kinesiology, the scientific study of human movement, has long played a role in student health at the university, but as the department has changed over the years, so has its focus.
An integral element of kinesiology is how the brain and body interact to produce movement. Many departments of kinesiology in higher education institutions around the world look at how cognition and motor skills change with age, especially late in life—but MSU takes a look at movement from the beginning, focusing on pediatrics.
And the study of motor skills in children and adolescents actually has a long history at MSU. This began with the arrival of Vern Seefeldt in 1966, continued through notable research such as the landmark longitudinal Motor Performance Study and persists today with a new wave of faculty comprising the cognitive and motor neuroscience team. With the addition of three new faculty members in 2014, this group of five is now the largest in the department.
To Chairperson Alan Smith, it all connects: “Many of today’s concerns come from a public health standpoint, so we can’t leave behind the understanding of how you control precise movements and how you come to learn to move.”
There is still particularly little knowledge about how cognitive and motor behavior develops in children—and that means many questions for families, educators and health professionals as they strive to do what’s best for our future generations.
Experiments in the past studied children and their motor behavior mostly through observation alone. Technology now allows us to look past the observable and to the inner workings of how the brain makes the body do what it does.
This is made possible at MSU with 2,790 square feet of newly renovated space in the basement of IM Circle, home of the Department of Kinesiology. It took six months and $905,000 to make the modern technology laboratories from old locker rooms, increasing the capabilities and the opportunities available to both faculty and students.
And the students have been coming in droves: In the past decade alone, the number of Kinesiology and Athletic Training undergraduate students has grown by more than 75 percent. Students come to learn in an elite environment from the best—which is why Smith looks toward faculty members with well-rounded backgrounds that have plenty to offer.
“As we’ve selected new faculty for the department, we’ve had an eye toward how they can integrate with each other and with the other groups,” he said.
Faculty on the cognitive and motor neurosciences team are banding together to lead studies that have implications for rehabilitation, children with disabilities, athletes with concussions and more. The collaboration extends outside the walls of IM Circle to the College of Engineering and the medical colleges at MSU, as well as beyond campus.
With new space comes great creativity, and although some members of the team have only been on campus for a few months, it hasn’t stopped them from making immediate strides in research.
Advancing ‘on all cylinders’
The first in the group to arrive, five years ago, was Florian Kagerer. He was enthusiastic about studying cognitive motor behavior at MSU, but faced the challenge of building his research repertoire with little infrastructure. It was difficult to attract graduate students sharing his interests, and he introduced undergraduate courses that were at first very unfamiliar to Kinesiology majors.
Now, Kagerer has more colleagues and a quickly increasing number of doctoral students to make the concentration more robust—and to finally “get the engine rolling,” according to Smith.
“Once you establish yourself and get some critical mass, you get rolling. The group is just starting out, so it’ll take a few years to get going on all cylinders,” Smith said. “In five to 10 years, it’ll be an incredibly thriving group, a hallmark of our department.”
The rest of the faculty agrees. There’s something extraordinary going on in the newly renovated areas of IM Circle. It shows in the variety and amount of research being done, the expanding and talented faculty and the growth and imagination of the students.
To Rajiv Ranganathan, who joined the cognitive and motor neuroscience team in January 2014, the new labs challenge and entice his students.
“Unlike the classroom, I think that being in a lab allows [students] more freedom to try different things without fear or failure,” he said.
The power of renovation, and inspiration, is felt throughout the halls of IM Circle.
It is a new movement of opportunity, innovation and creation that is just the beginning for the cognitive and motor neuroscience team—and for the department as a whole.
Mei-Hua Lee: Learning throughout a lifetime
Mei-Hua Lee’s work in kinesiology began long before her undergraduate studies in physical education. Her time as a gymnast progressed to the lifelong goal of studying the method behind movement.
“I was always fascinated with how people moved so elegantly,” said Lee, assistant professor of kinesiology. “I wanted to know the mechanisms for these actions.”
Since joining the MSU faculty in January 2014, Lee has hit the ground running, working on several studies related to how people learn motor skills, such as reaching and grasping, at different ages. Infants, children aged 6-12, college-aged students and the elderly are all subjects of extensive research to study movement through time.
“People need to move to survive,” Lee said. “It’s critical to understand how people move. You gradually learn motor skills and those skills become more robust. But when you get older, you start to lose some of these skills. When you look at movement of people who are in their 30s versus their 70s, you can see the difference.”
Lee says these differences across the lifespan not only reflect changes in strength and size, but also differences in the style of learning. For example, in a video game setting, she found that children aged 6-12 performed much differently than college-aged students when moving their shoulders to make sensors hit certain points. The children were often stuck in one strategy, whereas college students were more adaptive.
This finding has helped Lee launch a second study. It will examine if motor learning can be enhanced by getting individuals to alter their strategies for a task using reinforcement techniques (e.g., giving them a pleasant musical tone when they use the appropriate strategy).
A collaborative effort
Other studies are underway with faculty members in the Department of Kinesiology and the College of Engineering, which is part of the supportive network that has defined Lee’s time at MSU.
It is this collaboration that has helped inspire the trajectory of some of Lee’s work—and the possible outcomes from these studies that could help change the way we see movement.
Rajiv Ranganathan: Analyzing action for rehabilitation
Rajiv Ranganathan relates the importance of studying cognitive and motor neuroscience to something we do every day—reaching for that cup of coffee.
“Movement is really complex—as we reach for something, the number of muscles our brain has to coordinate to do this action is quite staggering,” he said. “Most of us don’t fully appreciate this exquisite coordination until we see someone who has had a neurological injury like a stroke. If we can all agree that rehabilitation of such movement disorders is an important priority, then we first need to understand the basis of these disorders.
“Otherwise, we are simply shooting in the dark.”
Ranganathan, an assistant professor of kinesiology, has always been analytical. He received his bachelor’s in electrical engineering before earning both a master’s and a Ph.D. in kinesiology. It was during his undergraduate years that he came face-to-face with the issue of movement coordination when a family member suffered a stroke and had prolonged difficulties in recovering regular functions. That sparked his interest in biomechanics and facilitating and understanding rehabilitation.
Ranganathan’s lab is located in the newly renovated area of IM Circle, with state-of-the-art equipment that helps him try to understand how the brain controls our actions. One of these machines is a bimanual virtual reality robotic system that Ranganathan can use to help assess and rehabilitate sensorimotor function. While research subjects are holding the robot’s “arms,” he can carefully control the mechanical environment and add resistance or other challenges, allowing him to pinpoint movement deficits with a great degree of accuracy. In addition, an eight-camera motion capture system enables him to study more natural movements that patients may have difficulties with—such as buttoning a shirt or reaching for a jar on a shelf.
Ranganathan stresses the importance of using technology in achieving his goals. “Imagine if you got your blood pressure taken and instead of getting a number like 120/80 mm Hg, they simply said, ‘Well, on a scale of one to five, you’re a three.’ The need for accurate and precise measurement seems rather obvious, but until recently, this has been extremely difficult to do for movements. We finally have tools like virtual reality and robotics and we can take full advantage of these tools to come up with effective rehabilitation strategies.”
With collaborators from Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, the College of Engineering and Sparrow Hospital, Ranganathan is currently working on a study to help improve arm and hand function for patients who have had a stroke. The implications for this study are potentially huge: about 800,000 people have a stroke each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a significant proportion of those individuals have chronic movement deficits. Finding a way to mitigate these deficits could have a big impact not only on the individuals themselves, but on society as a whole.
The ultimate goal of Ranganathan’s research is to use a multidisciplinary approach combining kinesiology, engineering and clinical expertise to broaden our understanding of how the brain controls movement and to develop new and more effective rehabilitation strategies. His time at MSU, and the collaborative efforts he is part of, will help him achieve that.
Florian Kagerer: Understanding the body’s ‘engine’
Children who stutter actually struggle to control other aspects of behavior as well. Florian Kagerer, an assistant professor of kinesiology, was one of the first researchers to show there is a difference in the non-speech movements of stutterers—specifically the ability to move their hands without looking.
It was a redeeming discovery for Kagerer, who once stuttered as a child. His curiosity about bimanual coordination began early in life, in part through his love for playing the piano.
Nowadays, his fascination with how people move is fueling powerful neuroscience research in the Department of Kinesiology. Kagerer wants to know what mechanisms in the brain fire up when we are writing, and how the two sides of our body control movements differently.
His recent studies have shown that people can more accurately control joysticks using two hands at once, when compared with performing the same task with one hand alone. The lab-based experiments could ultimately influence rehabilitation efforts for individuals with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) and other health conditions that affect motor control.
In fact, Kagerer says he is ready to take his data collection efforts further into the community. He is working with Sparrow Health System, based in Lansing, Mich., to identify research subjects with cerebral palsy and beginning a study with multiple sclerosis patients in partnership with MSU’s neurology clinic.
After five years at MSU, he is drawing new energy from his growing pool of colleagues working in the cognitive and motor neuroscience area, and the additional potential for advancement through collaboration. With more technological equipment and manpower in his reach, it is now possible for Kagerer to shift from looking solely at behavioral outputs to neurophysiology—the actual brain activity—occurring during movements.
Colleagues Mei-Hua Lee and Rajiv Ranganathan have already joined Kagerer on a project that could dramatically change the life of a child who has no limbs—and help many others living with severe motor paralysis. The group, including Ranjan Mukherjee of the College of Engineering, is exploring how to build an effective interface between the child’s body and a robotic prosthesis.
“What I try to do is work on understanding the engine better before I go to fix it,” Kagerer said of his studies on brain functioning. “The basic research work we do has, at the end of the path, the social component. We can help kids with motor dysfunctions live more independently.”
Matthew Pontifex: Exercise and the connection to cognition
Matthew Pontifex made news when he showed for the first time that kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can better drown out distractions after a single bout of exercise.
He brought those findings from his dissertation with him when he joined the MSU faculty in 2012. With each of his studies, he never loses focus on where the research may have the biggest impact: schools.
“Schools are in a tough position, trying to do more with less,” said Pontifex, assistant professor of kinesiology. “They are making decisions about physical activity time, but they still don’t really have evidence to support or change their policies.”
In the case of students with ADHD—a common disorder among children with a growing diagnosis rate—teachers sometimes remove recess as a consequence for misbehavior. “However, what our research would suggest is that doing that actually may end up punishing the teachers,” Pontifex says.
In the Health Behaviors and Cognition Laboratory, Pontifex and his graduate assistants ask research subjects to, for example, walk briskly on a treadmill or read while seated before having them perform various mental tasks. They measure electrical activity in the brain through electroencephalography (EEG) caps. Participants often sit in the “egg chair” while playing a computer game that challenges them to sort through visual stimuli.
The work on ADHD has expanded recently to explore how different forms of exercise affect kids’ ability to pay attention as well as adapt to mistakes they make. Aerobic exercise is often easiest to do in lab settings, but kids in schools that still offer physical education don’t always spend time running. So Pontifex has added single bouts of activity (20 minutes each) focused on coordination and resistance to his research. The team also plans to replicate their studies with children who have autism and with individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders.
Memory is another cognitive skill needed to be successful in school, and research shows physical activity may affect our ability to remember things. Pontifex is studying this phenomenon as well. With Kimberly Fenn of the MSU Department of Psychology, he is training students on a cognitive task in the morning, then testing them on the same material 12 hours later. Students wear a monitor to measure their activity throughout the day. They hope to replicate the study with school-age children after piloting it with undergraduates.
“If a child learns something during the day, but then is forced to be sedentary, does that affect their ability to remember?” Pontifex asks. “Are we teaching them the same things over again because we don’t allow them to be active?”
Blood flow & the brain
Matt Pontifex is now leading a research team exploring a lesser-understood aspect of exercise: blood flow to the brain. The group received a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the assumption that physical activity improves cognition because of increased blood flow, or if other mechanisms are in play, such as increases in connectivity among regions of the brain. Partners include Jodene Fine, school psychology faculty member in the College of Education, David Zhu of the Department of Radiology at MSU and Michelle Voss of the University of Iowa.
Janet Hauck: Movement from the beginning
Janet Hauck, assistant professor of kinesiology, comes from the lands of MSU’s rivals. She is a graduate of both the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, but her passion for working with the cognitive and motor neuroscience team already has her bleeding green.
Hauck specializes in adapted physical activity in infants and children with disabilities, such as autism. She started her research in kinesiology at the University of Michigan with MSU College of Education alumnus Dale Ulrich (Ph.D. ’81, Health and Physical Education), who also works with infants with disabilities. His studies prompted Hauck to create her own hypotheses that she is currently working on in her new lab space at IM Circle.
“I study the impact of motor behaviors on growth in infancy,” Hauck said. “The way infants gain weight in the first six months is critical to their overall weight trajectory in life. I want to introduce a series of physical activity exposures early in life to promote healthy growth for infants with known risk factors for obesity.”
Hauck is among the first researchers to focus on infant motor behaviors relating to weight gain. While previous research has focused on maternal behavior, diet or genetics, Hauck examines what the baby can do. She seeks to determine if babies that naturally move more often than other babies have healthier development.
Hauck hopes to pair the findings of this work, which is in progress, with field-based interventions in order to make a bigger impact on preventing obesity.
“We’re finding that if you wait until preschool or childhood, it’s too late,” Hauck said. “If your goal is to prevent, you need to start earlier and combine multiple disciplines.”
Playing the field
Hauck’s research for the PhysicaL Activity in Youth with Disabilities (PLAY’d) Lab often takes her into the field to be in the home environment of infants and their families.
“[The families I work with have] shared with me that they feel they’re getting a better explanation of their child’s development than they get at the pediatrician’s office. I get to share what the baby’s doing, what they’ll be doing soon, and then I teach them methods to scaffold those skills,” Hauck said. “It’s truly enjoyable work. I feel really blessed to have time at MSU to do it.”