May 12 (UPI) -- Scientists have found a group of neurons responsible for controlling the direction that mice turn. The "steering wheel" neurons, found in the brainstems of mice models, could help researchers better understand motor control in both animals and humans.
"It is an important discovery because movement is fundamentally one of the most basic features controlled by the brain," Ole Kiehn, professor of neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said in a news release. "At the same time, motor disorders can be very disabling. Therefore, knowledge of the basic mechanisms of the brain and the spinal cord which control our movements is important."
Scientists have previously documented the group of neurons, located in the spinal cord, responsible for the coordination of walking. However, the latest research, published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, marks the first time scientists have identified neurons specifically responsible for direction, or turning.
The newly identified neurons can be identified by their expression of a molecular marker called Chx10. According to researchers, cells expressing Chx10 make up a kind of motor turning system.
"The control is done by simply applying the 'brake' to the walking movement on the side that the mice turn to -- then the muscles will contract on the same side," said neuroscientist Jared Cregg, first author of the new study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen. "In this way, the length of the steps on one side becomes short and on the other side long, making the mouse turn."