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Relay station in the brain controls an array of movements

By
Brooks Hays
Scientists identified two cell populations in the substantia nigra. The two types of nerve cells are responsible for different aspects of locomotion. Photo by University of Basel/Biozentrum
Scientists identified two cell populations in the substantia nigra. The two types of nerve cells are responsible for different aspects of locomotion. Photo by University of Basel/Biozentrum

May 15 (UPI) -- Neuroscientists have identified two different nerve cell populations within the brain's substantia nigra, a relay station that controls a diverse array of movements.

Physical movements are executed through the coordination of myriad neural signals. Like a relay center, sending and receiving information, the brain's substantia nigra performs the coordination.

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Despite its importance to neural origins of physical movement, scientists know little about the structural makeup of the substantia nigra.

To better understand the substantia nigra, scientists at the University of Basel in Switzerland conducted a comprehensive survey of the neural region, studying its anatomy, genetics and functionality. Their research -- detailed this week in the journal Cell Reports -- showed one population of nerve cells in the relay center is responsible for initiating movements, while a second population maintains the continuity of a motion.

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"The heterogeneity of neuronal populations in the brain, also in the substantia nigra, is a well acknowledged concept," researcher Giorgio Rizzi said in a news release. "In our study, not only we decipher the function of two nerve cell groups, but we also show that they work together to produce correct locomotion."

An improved understanding of the substantia nigra could help researchers develop new treatments for nerve degeneration diseases like Parkinson's disease.

"Interestingly these cells are interaction partners of the population we identify as essential for movement initiation," said researcher Kelly Tan. "This means that the signals of the cell population are no longer received and transmitted; and this dysfunction may underlie the movement initiation impairment symptom observed in Parkinson's disease patients."

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