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Neuroscientist delves into the mechanics of movement

When Dr. Paul Zehr was 13 years old, he became fasinated with martial arts. But it wasn't the shownmanship of the sport that amazed him; it was the motor skills required.

"I realized how amazing it is to watch someone move as quickly as they can toward a target, and then stop right before they hit it," he says. "From a scientific perspective, the human ability for movement is incredible."

Zehr, who joined the physical education deparment last fall, has transformed his interst in motor skills into a career. Hezehr holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Alberta and has spent the last four years there researching potential rehabilitation methods for people with stroke or spinal cord injuries. He'll continue that research at UVic.

By having healthy participants walk on teadmills and use an arm-cycling machine, Zehr has determined that rhythmic armand leg movements, such as walking, are controoled by circuits within the spinal cord. "You don't really need your brain to do these activities," he says. "Your brain helps, but the intrinsic properties of your spinal cord generate the pattern you need. It's called the central pattern generator, or CPG." 

The next step in Zehr's research is to determine how to use the CPG in rehabilitation. "By getting people to do specific things like treadmill walking or arm cycling, we can try to get the spinal cord to switch into the CPG mode of activity, to make use of different reflex pathways and bring function back."

Zehr has been primarily funded by NSERC, and has just recieved grants from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

Despite being excited about pursuing his research, Zehr can't wait to spend time in the classroom. "I really try to pull a lot of research into my lectures, so that students can understand how dynamic this field really is."