Researchers have identified a group of nerve cells in the midbrain that, when stimulated, can pause or freeze all forms of motor activity in mice. These cells not only stop movement but also slow down breathing and heart rate. The unique “pause-and-play pattern” observed in the mice when the cells were activated is unlike anything previously seen. When the nerve cells were stimulated, the mice would freeze, and when the stimulation was stopped, they would resume movement from where they left off. The nerve cells identified are found in an area of the midbrain called the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN) and express a specific molecular marker called Chx10. Although the study was conducted in mice, researchers believe these findings could have implications for humans as the PPN is common to all vertebrates.
It is important to note that the movement arrest observed in this study is distinct from the freezing response caused by fear. The researchers theorize that it may be related to attention or alertness rather than fear. However, further research is needed to confirm this.
These findings could potentially shed light on the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease, as motor arrest or slow movement is a prominent symptom of the condition. The researchers speculate that the overactivation of these nerve cells in the PPN may be involved in inhibiting movement in Parkinson’s disease. By understanding the fundamental mechanisms behind movement control in the nervous system, this study may contribute to our understanding of the motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers used optogenetics, a technique that involves genetically modifying brain cells to make them more light-sensitive, to stimulate the nerve cells in the brainstem. This allowed them to determine the motor function of these cells. Further research is needed to fully explore the implications of these findings and their potential applications in understanding movement disorders.