Nav: Home

Scientists identify brain region in mice that keeps the body from losing its balance

January 30, 2018

NEW YORK -- New scientific research has revealed how a small part of the brain singlehandedly steadies the body if it is thrown off balance. The study in mice found that a brain region called the lateral vestibular nucleus, or LVN, accomplishes this feat by moving muscles in a two-step, kneejerk response that first widens the animal's center of gravity, and then strengthens and stabilizes its limb muscles and joints. These findings provide powerful evidence that the LVN is the key to animals' ability to maintain balance, while also offering insight into the mechanics of how animals stay upright when unexpected changes occur beneath their feet.

The study was published today in Cell Reports.

"Whether it's tripping on an uneven patch of sidewalk or negotiating a wobbly balance beam, we can all recall times when we've nearly lost our balance -- only to be saved by some quick reflexes," said Thomas M. Jessell, PhD, codirector of Columbia's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper's senior author. "Today's findings in mice suggest that reflexes like these may be driven by a predictable process guided by the LVN, a brain region that appears to be dedicated to one thing: keeping the body on its feet."

Decades of research has shown that multiple brain regions are involved in different aspects of balance. But which regions were involved in the reactive parts of balance -- how an animal maintains its stance after experiencing a disturbance -- remained unclear.

To get to the root of balance in the brain, the researchers first trained mice to walk across a balance beam, while the beam was nudged at specific intervals. After being momentarily thrown off balance, the mice almost always steadied themselves and continued on their way. Throughout this activity, researchers monitored muscle activity in the animals' limbs.

"Every time we nudged the beam, we observed a predictable pattern of muscle activity that helped the mice to regain their balance," said Andrew Murray, PhD, the paper's first author who completed the majority of this research while a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia in the Jessell Lab.

That pattern consisted of two movements in sequence: first, the mouse extended its paw, which widened the animal's base of support. Second, the muscles around the animal's limb joints become strong and rigid, which helped the mouse propel itself back over the center of the balance beam. Once they've righted themselves, they continued to walk down the length of the beam.

This reflexive action is something to which nearly everyone can relate.

"If you've ever been standing on a subway train when it moved suddenly, your body may have performed a similar sequence of movements to keep you upright," said Dr. Jessell, who is also the Claire Tow Professor of Motor Neuron Disorders at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "First, you extend your hands or feet outward to widen your base of support. And if you find yourself falling to one side, you may push yourself in the opposite direction to regain your balance."

In a second set of experiments, the researchers sought to identify how the animals' brains made all this possible. By using advanced molecular tools, they traced which brain region directed these specific movements. The data pointed to a tiny region in the brain called the LVN.

To confirm that the LVN was indeed responsible for maintaining balance, the researchers then silenced it. When the mice walked on the ground, they appeared normal. They could even walk on the beam -- but when the scientists again nudged the beam, this time they could not steady themselves; they'd lost their ability to regain their balance.

"Intriguingly, the brain had no backup plan; no other part of the brain stepped in to compensate for the LVN," said Dr. Murray, now a Group Leader at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, University College London. "This points to the fact that the LVN is orchestrating the movements that keep the body balanced."

Moving forward, the researchers are delving deeper into the brain science of balance. For example, preliminary research in mice has shown that the LVN appears to perk up when the animal begins walking on something unsteady, such as a balance beam. But when it is walking on a more stable surface, such as a treadmill, it remains dormant.

"The brain seems to know that it's about to embark upon a potentially dangerous journey, and therefore needs to be extra aware of its surroundings," said Dr. Jessell. "The precise mechanisms that guide this process are likely complex, involving multiple brain regions. But the LVN may very well be at the center of it all."
-end-
This paper is titled: "Balance control mediated by vestibular circuits during limb extension or antagonist muscle co-activation." Additional contributors include Katherine Croce, Timothy Belton and Turgay Akay.

This research was supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, the Mathers Foundation, Project A.L.S., the National Institutes of Health (NS0332245) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The authors report no financial or other conflicts of interest.

Columbia University's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute brings together an extraordinary group of world-class scientists and scholars to pursue the most urgent and exciting challenge of our time: understanding the brain and mind. A deeper understanding of the brain promises to transform human health and society. From effective treatments for disorders like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression and autism to advances in fields as fundamental as computer science, economics, law, the arts and social policy, the potential for humanity is staggering. To learn more, visit: zuckermaninstitute.columbia.edu.

The Zuckerman Institute at Columbia University

Related Brain Articles:

Study describes changes to structural brain networks after radiotherapy for brain tumors
Researchers compared the thickness of brain cortex in patients with brain tumors before and after radiation therapy was applied and found significant dose-dependent changes in the structural properties of cortical neural networks, at both the local and global level.
Blue Brain team discovers a multi-dimensional universe in brain networks
Using a sophisticated type of mathematics in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.
New brain mapping tool produces higher resolution data during brain surgery
Researchers have developed a new device to map the brain during surgery and distinguish between healthy and diseased tissues.
Newborn baby brain scans will help scientists track brain development
Scientists have today published ground-breaking scans of newborn babies' brains which researchers from all over the world can download and use to study how the human brain develops.
New test may quickly identify mild traumatic brain injury with underlying brain damage
A new test using peripheral vision reaction time could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment of mild traumatic brain injury, often referred to as a concussion.
This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine.
Brain scientists at TU Dresden examine brain networks during short-term task learning
'Practice makes perfect' is a common saying. We all have experienced that the initially effortful implementation of novel tasks is becoming rapidly easier and more fluent after only a few repetitions.
Balancing time & space in the brain: New model holds promise for predicting brain dynamics
A team of scientists has extended the balanced network model to provide deep and testable predictions linking brain circuits to brain activity.
New view of brain development: Striking differences between adult and newborn mouse brain
Spikes in neuronal activity in young mice do not spur corresponding boosts in blood flow -- a discovery that stands in stark contrast to the adult mouse brain.
Map of teenage brain provides evidence of link between antisocial behavior and brain development
The brains of teenagers with serious antisocial behavior problems differ significantly in structure to those of their peers, providing the clearest evidence to date that their behavior stems from changes in brain development in early life, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton, in collaboration with the University of Rome Tor Vergata in Italy.

Related Brain Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Bias And Perception
How does bias distort our thinking, our listening, our beliefs... and even our search results? How can we fight it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas about the unconscious biases that shape us. Guests include writer and broadcaster Yassmin Abdel-Magied, climatologist J. Marshall Shepherd, journalist Andreas Ekström, and experimental psychologist Tony Salvador.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#513 Dinosaur Tails
This week: dinosaurs! We're discussing dinosaur tails, bipedalism, paleontology public outreach, dinosaur MOOCs, and other neat dinosaur related things with Dr. Scott Persons from the University of Alberta, who is also the author of the book "Dinosaurs of the Alberta Badlands".