Brain Map: How the Brain Orchestrates Motion

Contemporary Science Issues and Innovations April 09, 2013 Belmont Media Center

Scientists have worked for decades to decipher how the brain controls movement. Their discoveries are being applied to rehabilitation and to advanced robotics engineering. Tamar Flash of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, and Emilio Bizzi of the McGovern Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explain how the brain converts the mental intention into actual motion.


Tamar Flash, Ph.D., is the Dr. Hymie Moross Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, Weizmann Institute, Israel. Professor Flash received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. After postdoctoral studies at MIT she joined the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. She was appointed full professor there in 1998 and served as Chair of the department in 2004-2007. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Research.


Emilio Bizzi, M.D., Ph.D., is an MIT Institute Professor, Principal Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the Eugene McDermott Professor in the Brain Sciences and Human Behavior (MIT). He received his M.D. from the University of Rome in 1958 and his Ph.D. from the University of Pisa in 1968 and joined the MIT faculty in the same year. He served as director of the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology from 1983 to 1989, and chaired the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences from 1986 to 1997. He was appointed Investigator at the McGovern Institute in 2001. Among many other honors, Dr. Bizzi became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1968 and the Institute of Medicine in 2005. He received the President of Italy's Gold Medal for Scientific Contributions in 2005 and in 2006 was elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tamar Flash's research in computational neuroscience focuses on modeling the planning and control strategies underlying the brain's generation of arm movements. Based on data from human subjects, her lab develops mathematical models of how the brain plans hand and arm movements. These studies have led to surprising insights about the geometric properties of brain representations of movement. Dr. Flash's work with patients has revealed new information about how neurological damage results in impaired movement-planning abilities.

In the area of advanced robotics, Dr. Flash is developing new control strategies for robotic systems. Funded by the United States Navy ,the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and more recently by the EU FP7 Octopus research project, collaboration between Professor Flash, Professor Hochner from the Hebrew University and other European teams is studying the control of movement in the octopus, producing important models for developing flexible robotic systems.

Emilio Bizzi's research examines how the brain translates general mental intentions into the detailed commands needed to control muscle-contractions and limb movements. One of his key discoveries is that groups of muscles are activated synergistically by circuits of neurons in the spinal cord. He believes that these synergies represent the fundamental building blocks for assembling a repertoire of complex movements.

Dr. Bizzi is an international leader in establishing how complicated movement is achieved. His work represents a significant contribution to understanding how motor control is affected by stroke damage and how computational analysis of motor control can be harnessed to improve rehabilitation methods for stroke patients.


article by Dr. Flash and colleagues on geometry of movement timing: Movement Timing and Invariance Arise from Several Geometries

on Dr. Bizzi's work Stroke Disrupts How Brain Controls Muscle Synergies

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