West Virginia University Department of Biology associate professor Jim Belanger and undergraduate student Harshraj Parikshak are studying how brains control muscles. The research focuses primarily on how crustaceans and insects do this differently than humans.

The research used techniques from engineering to study the problem.

“We used computer simulations of the pathways of neurons that control muscles,” said Belanger. “One set of simulations for a mammalian leg muscle, and one set for a crustacean leg muscle.”

A major difference between the two systems is that the mammalian system uses a digital code to control the muscles like computer bits, while the crustacean system uses an analog system like an old radio or television broadcast.

The team is looking to see whether one system gives better control, uses less energy, or works over a wide range of activity.

“Most of the engineering tools we used are called frequency analyses,” Belanger said.

Frequency analysis was used to get each of the muscles to cyclically contract and relax at a particular frequency. This is something that lots of muscles have to do normally, for example when you run or breathe.

The duo then compared the two different systems in terms of how well they could accomplish the task. So far they have determined that the crustacean system works over a wider range of activity.

While they are interested in the biology, they are also hoping that the analog control system can give them ideas for better ways to control prostheses.

Belanger presented their research at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology national conference in Austin, Texas. Conference attendees responded well to the research, and were especially interested in seeing how the research could be used to control prosthesis.

The pair have worked together for two years now. Belanger says they would have gotten nowhere at the beginning without the help of Parikshak’s translator, Teresa McGonigle of the WVU Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Parikshak, who is deaf, says Belanger has been able to communicate with him effectively, and that is why he chose to have Belanger be his mentor for the project.

For more information on the research please contact Jim Belanger at Jim.Belanger@mail.wvu.edu or at 304-293 5223.



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