Getting the Brain and Body Working Together

For those with concussion or dementia who have difficulty with movement, pinpointing the problem can yield answers.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

In everyday life, there are lots of activities where people need to think while coordinating movement to interact with something. It could be focussing on a task and looking at a computer screen, all while moving a mouse or trackpad to control what’s happening. It could be looking out at other motorists and traffic signals while driving a car.

But when someone has a history of concussion or a family history of dementia, those movements won’t always be smooth.

“Both those groups, they’re thinking just fine and feeling just fine, they’re moving just fine, until you push the system,” says Lauren Sergio, professor of health science and kinesiology at York University. “Brain parts talk to other brain parts, and when that happens, suddenly movements get a little less fabulous.”

Sergio approaches the problem in two ways. Firstly, she observes and measures movements to pinpoint where the dysfunction happens. This is called motor psychophysics, and it looks for where movements stop being straight and smooth, deviating into motion that is more wobbly or that frequently switches direction.

Secondly, she uses MRI brain imaging to look at how various parts of the brain are communicating, but also when they fail to communicate. With these problem areas in hand, Sergio can then come up with ways to train the brain to communicate better, with the goal of improving motor control.

Using video games and activities, Sergio creates innovative ways to help people coordinate movements when they need to think at the same time. The games may even be able to exercise the brain to slow down decline in dementia patients.

Her work also finds more sensitive metrics for brain dysfunction, helping assess whether people are ready to return to sports or work after a concussion, even if current medical standards for recovery have been met.

This evidence-based approach to treating concussion and dementia opens new opportunities to improve brain health.

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Lauren Sergio is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto. She holds a Tier 1 York Research Chair in Brain Health and Skilled Performance. She received her PhD, specializing in the neural control of movement, from McGill University in 1994, and pursued post-doctoral studies in neurophysiology at the Université de Montréal. Her research examines the effects of age, sex, neurological disease, head injury, and experience (elite versus non-elite athletes) on the brain’s control of complex movement. Sergio works with a wide range of adult populations, including NHL draft prospects and Alzheimer’s disease patients, using behavioural and brain imaging techniques. She is also a member of the York University Sport Medicine team, and is a research affiliate at Southlake Regional Health Centre.

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