Emmy Noether program to enable better understanding of human movement

9 people stand in a semi-circle and look friendly into the camera. A large white cupboard and a large screen with the FAU logo can be seen in the background.

FAU professor Dr. Alessandro Del Vecchio receives roughly 1.6 million euros in funding

Prof. Dr. Alessandro Del Vecchio dedicates himself to researching how the central nervous system and muscles work together to make us move. His work currently includes two projects aiming at developing intelligent neuro-orthosis for patients with neuromotor impairments to their hands. Now, the head of the Neuromuscular Physiology and Neural Interfacing Laboratory (N-squared Lab) at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) will receive funding of roughly 1.6 million euros from the German Research Foundation (DFG) in the form of an Emmy Noether program. The program’s goal: Understanding how the central nervous system controls human movement.

At the center of Prof. Del Vecchio’s new Emmy Noether program DeMOTUS – short for “Decoding the Exact and Representative Motor Output of The Human Spinal Cord” – we see the neural cells responsible for muscle force: the motor units. They are the union of an individual spinal motor neuron and a group of muscle fibers, and the last signal pathway before movement is carried out. To fully understand the complete flow of human movement from brain signal to muscular action, large numbers of motor units need to be closely observed and analyzed during variegated motor behaviours.

Decoding movement with a tiny sensor

Up until now, it hasn’t been possible to identify individual motor neurons during natural movements, leaving scientists in the dark with many questions regarding movement neuroscience and neurological rehabilitation. During the course of the next six years, Alessandro Del Vecchio wants to change this circumstance with the help of an intramuscular electromyographic sensor. After its development, the sensor will be able to learn from hundreds of healthy muscles how the central nervous system controls motor units during synergistic hand movements. “Imagine a very tiny sensor, as thin as a hair: It will enable us to look into the last neural cells that control muscle forces and make us move.  We may be able to decipher the full final code of movement,” explains Prof. Del Vecchio.

Based on these learnings, he hopes to proof the hypothesis that due to a strong connection between the motor cortex and spinal motor neurons, humans may learn to selectively activate specific pools of motor units that share synaptic inputs. This would have a tremendous impact on people who have suffered from a stroke or spinal cord injury (SCI), since these patients could hypothetically train neurons individually with the help of neurofeedback. By connecting the patients with the motor neuron activity directly, these patients would then be able to move the paralyzed muscles in an intuitive and natural way.

Aside from gaining new general insights on the neurological process of human movement, the learnings of the Emmy Noether program DeMOTUS will allow the development of novel technologies for robotic orthoses and artificial hands, thus helping patients with neural lesions stemming from stroke or SCI to restore manual motor function.

New team for DeMOTUS

The idea behind Emmy Noether programs is to support excellent young scientists on their path of research. In order to be ready for the launch of DeMOTUS in spring of 2024, Alessandro Del Vecchio is currently in the process of building the team that will co-lead DeMOTUS objectives. The DFG funding allows the neuroscientist to fill three full-time PhD positions for which he is currently screening applications. After finalizing their PhD, the candidates can potentially stay on the program to see it to its completion.

More information

Prof. Dr. Alessandro Del Vecchio
Professor for Neuromuscular Physiology and Neural Interfacing