Hendrik Enders publishes study measuring brain-muscle interaction in real time

Activities like walking or cycling seem simple to able-bodied people. Once a spinal cord injury occurs, however, you have a perfectly healthy brain and a healthy musculoskeletal system that simply can’t communicate anymore.

You have two otherwise healthy systems that are completely disconnected.

Traditionally, it was believed the human brain isn’t very involved in the relatively simple task of cycling.

Hendrik Enders, a PhD candidate working for the University of Calgary, was a part of the team that discovered this assumption was untrue.

When one thinks of an activity such as cycling for example, there is a specific time when force is needed: you push on the crank of the cycle at a particular time in the rotation of the crank. There’s a particular phase when one uses a lot of physical force to cycle.

Enders found that those are the phases when the areas of the brain responsible for movement are particularly active, the phases when the muscle has to work significantly to produce force.

“When I started here in Calgary, my research group was really focused on what was happening with muscles while people were moving, and I wanted to take that to the next level in my PhD,” Enders said.

As he was always interested in brain function, his motivation for the project stemmed from wanting to connect what was happening on the muscular level to what was happening in the brain.

“We know that there’s a connection, people have known that for a long time. But, being able to measure this interaction in real time in humans that are performing movement? That is challenging and relatively new.”

“The human body is kind of the gold standard. No machines that we can build work better or more efficiently than the human body…” – Hendrik Enders

His study, Changes in Cortical Activity Measured with EEG During a High Intensity Cycling Exercise, is relatively basic at the moment, so applications of their results may be a few years away. Regardless, it all ties back into humans that have accidents resulting in spinal cord injury.

A large trend in research over the past ten years has been to see what can be done about this disconnect between brain and body. Researchers have tried to record what’s happening in the brain, analyze that function, and then try to use the information to control a robotic arm, for example.

“Our data did show that the activity in those areas of the brain is related to the movement cycle.” Enders said.

The application of Enders’ study lies in utilizing what is happening in the brain to compensate for a spinal cord injury or loss of a limb.

Hendrik Enders is studying the disconnect between brain and body after a spinal cord injury. Photo by Sabrine Seyffarth.

“I’m obviously not working with spinal cord injury patients or amputees right now, but I believe that in order to fix something that’s broken, you first need to understand how it works [correctly],” Enders said.

“The human body is kind of the gold standard. No machines that we can build work better or more efficiently than the human body, so understanding how we work, to me, is crucial to understand how we can engineer something that helps patients regain function.”

Many other researchers have been eager to read copies of Enders’ manuscript, this study being one of his most popular works that have been published thus far. Success wasn’t a one-man act for Enders, however.

“The whole measurement of brain signals was something my research group wasn’t familiar with, before I started this,” Enders said.

The challenge for him was to establish the collaboration with other researchers at the University of Calgary, and essentially find someone who had the necessary time and equipment to share with him for the experiments needed for his study.

“I was really lucky and really grateful that I found collaborators that were so helpful and spent so much time with me, allowing me to spend time in their lab and to use their equipment.”

The time and effort put in was worth it, as Enders efforts in this study won him the Vanier Award.

Thumbnail by Hendrik Enders. 

trathgeber@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Materi, amateri@cjournal.ca