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Uncovering the Genes Linked to Our Motor Skills

As babies, we can only make very basic movements. As we develop, however, parts of our nervous systems reorganize and we learn to make more complex motions by flexing and extending opposing muscles in useful patterns. Scientists are still piecing together how this reorganization happens.

A study has found that in mice, this neural development depends on the genetic pathway for proteins known as Bax and Bak. Problems in the pathway prevent the animals from learning skilled movements. 

The study was conducted by researchers at the CUNY School of Medicine at the City College of New York, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency. The researchers included School of Medicine Professor John H. Martin and former Martin Lab postdoctoral researcher Najet Serradj, now of Burke Neurological Institute, and Yutaka Yoshida, now of the Burke Neurological Institute. They recommend future investigations into whether issues in the Bax/Bak pathways also play a role in human developmental motor disabilities.

Circuits of neurons connect muscles with the motor cortex, letting our brains tell our muscles how to move. As our nervous systems develop and as we practice new movements, these circuits reorganize, adjusting connections between neurons so that we can make finer and more complex motions. The investigators found that in mice without molecular signaling from the Bax/Bak pathway, the circuits do not reorganize properly. Those mice were able to make simple reaching movements, but not grasping motions.

Martin and colleagues are now investigating cortico-motorneural connections, which link neurons in the motor cortex and in the spine. While the connections exist in young mice and perhaps other mammals, they only last to adulthood in primates. These connections may explain our finer hand dexterity.

“We hope to leverage the connection in studying new ways to repair damaged motor systems,” said Martin.

Explore This Work
“Skilled Movements Require Non-apoptotic Bax/Bak Pathway-Mediated Corticospinal Circuit Reorganization”

Work By
John H. Martin (Medical Professor) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
City College of New York

Bonus Content
“Researchers link genes and motor skills development” (CCNY News)

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