MINNEAPOLIS, April 17 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say they've made a discovery that might lead to new treatments for central nervous system maladies such as Parkinson's disease.
Researchers led by Karen Mesce and Joshua Puhl of the University of Minnesota discovered it's possible the human nervous system -- within each segment of the spinal cord -- might have its own "unit burst generator" to control rhythmic movements such as walking.
By studying a simpler model of locomotion in the medicinal leech, the researchers discovered each nerve cord segment has a complete unit burst generator. When a neuron fires, it sets off a chain reaction that gives rise to rhythmic movement, they said.
Mesce and her research group targeted the segmented leech for study because they have fewer and larger neurons, thereby making them easier to study.
Mesce said the study found that dopamine -- a common human hormone -- can activate each of the complete generator units.
"Because dopamine affects movement in many different animals, including humans, our studies may help to identify treatments for Parkinson's patients and those with spinal cord injury," Mesce said.
The study is available online in the Journal of Neuroscience.