Yaroslav Molkov, assistant professor of mathematics in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, in collaboration with researchers at Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, has received a grant to use computational modeling to map a motor control system to study Huntington’s disease. The three-year, $1.2 million grant is funded by the CHDI Foundation, a privately-funded, nonprofit biomedical research organization exclusively dedicated to Huntington’s disease.
Although the gene for Huntington’s disease was identified in 1993 by the Huntington’s Disease Collaborative Research Group, which included scientists from IUPUI, to date no way to stop or reverse the course of this devastating hereditary brain disorder has been discovered.
Huntington’s disease results in the progressive loss of both mental faculties and physical control, including voluntary motor movements and involuntary jerking. The disease affects approximately 1 in every 10,000 Americans and more than 250,000 are at-risk of having inherited it from a parent.
Molkov is using mathematics to develop an innovative model for motor control—how a person generates certain movements. This project is focusing specifically on the reaching motion of an arm, such as moving a joystick.
“Huntington’s disease patients lack a particular part of the motor control system that actually makes it impossible to precisely execute motor movements,” Molkov said. “Over the next three years we are developing a biologically plausible model of the whole system so we can start experimenting through simulations.”
Mathematical modeling, which creates an abstract schematic to describe the behavior of a system, is used to explain experimental facts and then predict outcomes of future experiments.
Creating this model involves understanding the body’s system that actuates a simple arm movement. This reaching motion involves biomechanical parts of the arm as well as the spinal cord neurons, which activate different muscles in the arm. Research collaborators at Drexel University, led by professor Ilya Rybak, will focus on that part of the system.
At IUPUI, Molkov and newly arrived postdoctoral researcher Wondimu Teka are developing a model to show how the brain controls this complicated system and to provide more information about the brain’s ability to learn new motor movements.
Ultimately, a better understanding of these motor movements—how a person might execute, control and learn those movements—could lead to new treatments for those with this fatal disease.