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Vol. LXII, No. 16
August 6, 2010

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  NIH scientists and collaborators abroad are learning about the brain activity underlying the start and end of physical movement.  
  NIH scientists and collaborators abroad are learning about the brain activity underlying the start and end of physical movement.  

Scientists Identify Brain Circuits Related to Initiation, Termination of Movement Sequences

In humans, throwing a ball, typing on a keyboard or engaging in most other physical activities involves the coordination of numerous discrete movements that are organized as action sequences. Scientists at NIH and the Gulbenkian Institute in Portugal have identified brain activity in mice that can signal the initiation and termination of newly learned action sequences. The findings appeared online July 22 in Nature.

“This interesting report should advance our understanding of the neurobiology of movement disorders and open new avenues of research for their treatment and prevention,” said Dr. Kenneth R. Warren, acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“We recorded activity in the dorsal striatum and substantia nigra during the learning of novel action sequences,” explained Dr. Xin Jin of NIAAA’s Laboratory for Integrative Neuroscience. “Although previous studies have reported changes in neural activity in these areas during movement, their role in the initiation and termination of newly learned action sequences has not been explored.”

“These results could have important implications for disorders where these circuits degenerate, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, in which the initiation and termination of voluntary movement sequences are impaired,” said Dr. Rui Costa of the Gulbenkian Institute. “More broadly, they are relevant for understanding how we learn and control the execution of behavioral sequences, which may impact disorders of action control like compulsivity.”

NIH Scientists Advance Universal Flu Vaccine

A universal influenza vaccine—so-called because it could potentially provide protection from all flu strains for decades—may become a reality because of research led by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In experiments with mice, ferrets and monkeys, the investigators used a 2-step immunization approach to elicit infection-fighting antibodies that attacked a diverse array of influenza virus strains. Current flu vaccines do not generate such broadly neutralizing antibodies, so they must be re-formulated annually to match the predominant virus strains circulating each year.

The research, led by NIAID scientist Dr. Gary Nabel, appeared online ahead of print July 15 in Science Express.

“Generating broadly neutralizing antibodies to multiple strains of influenza in animals through vaccination is an important milestone in the quest for a universal influenza vaccine,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “This significant advance lays the groundwork for the development of a vaccine to provide long-lasting protection against any strain of influenza. A durable and effective universal influenza vaccine would have enormous ramifications for the control of influenza, a disease that claims an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 lives annually, including an average of 36,000 in the United States.”

“We are excited by these results,” said Nabel. “We may be able to begin efficacy trials of a broadly protective flu vaccine in 3 to 5 years.”

Gene Therapy Rescues Monkeys from Parkinson’s Symptoms

In work funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, researchers have found they can rescue monkeys from a Parkinson’s- like condition by using gene therapy to deliver a growth factor into the brain. The approach is among the first that is beneficial to animals after they have developed signs of disease.

Parkinson’s disease attacks a part of the brain that controls movement called the substantia nigra. The disease leads to progressive loss of motor function including involuntary shaking, slowed movement, stiffened muscles and impaired balance. Drugs and other treatments are available to control these symptoms, but there are no treatments to curb the destruction of neurons in the substantia nigra.

The study appeared in the July 14 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

“There have been many challenges in developing a treatment that can restore function in patients with Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Beth-Anne Sieber, an NINDS program director. “Investigators have learned a lot from past experience and we are hopeful that this approach—in which a potent growth factor is delivered to the brain in a precisely controlled way—will prove beneficial in clinical trials.”

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