NSF grant will improve understanding of movement in people and animals

A medium-sized dog in midair as it leaps across a grassy field.
A NSF-funded WSU research project will investigate the underlying mechanisms of movement in people and animals (photo by Ron Fung on Unsplash).

Washington State University researchers have received a National Science Foundation grant to better understand the underlying mechanisms that enable movement in people and animals.

The three-year, approximately $900,000 grant will allow researchers to study the interconnected processes that contribute to musculoskeletal function. The work, led by Bertrand Tanner, associate professor of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience (IPN), and David Lin, associate professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and IPN, could influence research in fields such as rehabilitation and sports medicine and robotic design.

While most people don’t usually think about how they are able to move, daily activities, like walking or lifting a bag of groceries, rely on the complicated interactions between the muscle, tendon, and skeletal systems.

Bertrand Tanner (left) and David Lin.
Bertrand Tanner (left) and David Lin.

“The skeletal muscle system is unique because it has to facilitate a number of diverse functions,” said Tanner. “Whether muscles are used to jump or for endurance to work for a long time, they utilize energy a little differently. It’s not just the muscle acting by itself — our hypothesis is that the dynamic interactions muscle has with tendon and the skeleton also modulates efficiency and power output underlying locomotion.”

As part of the project, the researchers will use computer models and experiments to study how the interactions between muscles, tendons, and the skeleton help to determine how much mechanical power a muscle can generate. This will in turn enable them to better characterize how muscles work at the molecular, tissue, and organismal levels.

“The impacts of these interacting components of the entire motor system on movement are poorly understood because studying different mechanisms in isolation neglects the coupling between them,” said Lin.

The researchers will use a newly developed hybrid experimental-simulation feedback system that brings together muscle mechanics, tendon properties, and limb and body masses. The system will be able to test how muscles generate mechanical power. It will also be able to simulate tendon characteristics and the varying mass loads that muscles contract against in a virtual environment.

“These new approaches will enable manipulation of biophysical, biochemical, and mechanical mechanisms of the motor system across multiple scales,” said Lin.

Tanner added that by integrating over multiple scales, the researchers can determine how muscles tune or modulate power output within the system. “We can then ask questions related to how muscle can automatically optimize its output under different conditions,” he said.

While both researchers work with muscles, they have different perspectives. Tanner studies how motor proteins interact, primarily focusing on molecular and cellular muscle biology. Lin looks at macroscopic muscle function and its impacts on organismal performance, such as the maximal height of a jump. Together they form a complementary team with different perspectives on muscle function.

“Even though this is a very basic science approach, it’s our hope that the next steps of this and what we learn can inform a number of questions that will have broader applications across different medical and engineering fields,” Tanner said.

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