March 7, 2024

UCalgary research discovery advances our understanding of the brain

Multidisciplinary research team identifies how specific neurons influence motor behaviours
A banner of a brain made out of puzzle pieces with two faces next to it
Alex McGirr, left, and Patrick Whelan.

A discovery by a team of researchers at the University of Calgary offers new insight into how the brain works, particularly during defensive or exploratory behaviour.

Dr. Patrick Whelan, PhD, principal investigator of the study, says the team was able to pinpoint specific neurons in the brains of mice that trigger movement based on the context of the situation. The research, focusing on the neurons found in a section of the brainstem called the cuneiform nucleus, was published in February in the journal Nature Communications

“Specific glutamatergic neurons in the cuneiform nucleus regulate movement. For example, they become particularly active during defensive behaviours, such as darting movements, to protect against a perceived threat. These types of behaviours are carefully regulated in the brain,” Whelan says.

Whelan and other UCalgary researchers are studying brain structure and functions to help identify new treatments that promote recovery in movement disorders such as spinal cord injury, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

“Advancements in medical science are impossible without the foundational knowledge generated by basic science, allowing us to think about problems differently and generate new therapeutics for neurological and psychiatric conditions,” says study co-author Dr. Alexander McGirr, MD, PhD.

The research found a link between the zona incerta region of the brain, the cuneiform nucleus and exploratory behaviour, such as scanning, sniffing or rearing.  

“Our findings suggest that the zona incerta acts as a switch supporting the brain's decision-making, between exploratory and defensive behaviours. This dual functionality offers new insight into the brain's mechanism for adapting movement to environmental challenges,” says Whelan. 

The discoveries were made through neurophotonics, a neuroscience technique in which light-sensitive proteins are introduced to control and monitor brain circuits to impact behaviour or movements. 

The study was made possible through transdisciplinary support, including from the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) Molecular Core Facilitiesthe HBI Advanced Microscopy Platform, and the CSM Optogenetics Platform, which are supported by the Cumming Medical Research Fund. Researchers also received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Frank Leblanc Chair in spinal cord injury research.

Patrick Whelan is a professor and associate dean of Faculty Affairs and Development in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He is jointly appointed to the departments of Physiology and Pharmacology and Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Alexander McGirr is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine, a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education within the HBI.

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