Think fast. Someone unexpectedly bumps into your arm while you’re carrying a mug. If it’s full of hot coffee, your reaction will look strikingly different than if the cup is empty.
This unassuming response excites Jonathan Michaels as to its possibilities. Understanding how the brain processes this information so quickly, all while juggling unexpected sensory feedback, may lead to a better quality of life for those suffering from motor-control disorders, like Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s about understanding how our sense of positioning, the information we’re getting from our body, how it informs and controls how we’re able to move and reach so well,” said Michaels, a BrainsCAN postdoctoral scholar.
Toward that understanding, Michaels was recently awarded a 2020 Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, given to top postdoctoral scholars nationally and internationally seen as capable of contributing to the country’s economic, social and research growth.
A total of 70 fellowships ($70,000/year for two years) are awarded annually through the Tri-Council agencies, made up of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Michaels is supervised by Andrew Pruszynski, Canada Research Chair in Sensorimotor Neuroscience, and Jörn Diedrichsen, Western Research Chair for Motor Control and Computational Neuroscience.
Completing his undergrad at Queen’s University, Michaels earned his PhD in Systems Neuroscience at the University of Göttingen in Germany before heading to Stanford University for a postdoctoral position.
That lab’s closure, however, brought the Toronto native back to Canada last year to work with a familiar face. As an undergrad, Michaels worked with Pruszynski, who was a graduate student at the time.
While reaching for a pen or unlocking your front door may seem trivial, the flurry of activity happening in the brain – which can happen in milliseconds – remains unclear.
“We know people do this well, but it’s not understood how we’re able to do this so easily,” Michaels said. “I’m trying to figure out how parts of the brain support that ability to move quickly and accurately and also learn new things in such a powerful way.”
People lacking this sense of reach control, for example those with Parkinson’s disease, have profound difficulties interacting with their daily lives. While not specifically studying any diseases, Michaels hopes his exploration of reach control will inform other researchers’ work.
“In many different diseases, people show extreme deficits that we don’t understand what exactly is going on. They’re suddenly not able to do something they were able to do before,” he said. “It would be ideal if we could eventually help the understanding of some diseases.”