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Spring 2017 GRASP Seminar: Simon Sponberg, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Manipulating Feedback to Reveal Mechanisms of Neuromechanical Control in Agile Animal Movement”

March 3, 2017 @ 11:00 am - 12:00 pm


Organisms negotiate many complex environments, demonstrating remarkable stability, maneuverability, and multifunctionality. What are the mechanisms that enable organisms to achieve this robust, agile movement? Using tools from biology and physics our group manipulates the feedback pathways in organisms and explores the reciprocal tuning of the interacting physiological systems (neurons, muscles, and mechanics) underlying biological locomotion. I will explore three principles that emerge from this perspective. 1) We have discovered that the power output of muscles across a large diversity of animals has sensitive dependence on the timing of activation. Precise neural control matches the sensitivities of muscle mechanics. 2) Using control theoretic approaches, we have shown that when moths visually track flowers in extremely low light levels, they slow their nervous systems to increase light sensitivity. However they only slow to the point where they can still track the movements that natural flowers blow in the wind. To increase robustness they also rely on mechanosensory cues from their long proboscis. Ecological context shapes neuromechanical control. 3) Finally we have simultaneously recorded from nearly all the motor units controlling the movement of the moth’s wings. Using information theoretic tools we find that timing of motor activation encodes more information than the amount of activation during these moderately fast behaviors. By treating locomotion as the emergent behavior of multiple interacting dynamic physiological systems, we can converge on neuromechanical principles that underlie an integrative science of movement.


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Simon Sponberg is an assistant professor of physics and biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He earned his Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UC, Berkeley with Professor Robert Full. He was an NSF postdoctoral fellow in biological informatics at the University of Washington where he worked with Professor Tom Daniel (Biology) and Professor Adrienne Fairhall (Physiology & Biophysics). Simon is a Hertz fellow and was awarded the young investigator award from the International Society of Neuroethology. His work recently was awarded an NSF CAREER grant. His research is at the interface of physics and physiology, using a dynamic systems and neuromechanics approach to understand locomotion, and especially maneuverability and stability, in biological systems.


March 3, 2017
11:00 am - 12:00 pm
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