brain imagery

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Catherine Ojakangas, Ph.D.

Research Associate/Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery

Learning to do something new with our arms or hands can be very difficult. We practice and practice, thinking carefully about each part of the movement. Suddenly, it seems, we no longer have to think about the movement at all! It's automatic and committed to memory. How the brain learns new movements and improves movements to the point of automaticity is the focus of my research. Which parts of the brain are involved in visuomotor learning and how these areas work together is my long-term research interest.

Like many of us, my road to my present career was a winding one. First trained as an undergraduate and graduate student in communication disorders (University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Boston University), I worked as a speech-language pathologist for several years in California and Minnesota. It was working with all types of neurologically-impaired patients in the medical setting that peaked my interest in the brain. Heading back into academia at the University of Minnesota, I began my true neuroscience career examining the cerebellum's involvement in motor learning while working toward my Ph.D. in Neuroscience with Tim Ebner as my advisor. After graduation, love and opportunity lead me to spend four years in Graz, Austria, at the Karl-Franz-Josef Universitaet as a visiting research scientist where I studied neurosurgical treatments of Parkinson's disease.

Having had enough of socialism, but having thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of Austria, I joined the lab of John Donoghue at Brown University to study motor learning in the motor cortices. Eventually, I moved from primate to human neurophysiology, which was something I have always wanted to do. My involvement with the initial studies of John's lab in developing a brain-machine interface for paralyzed adults got me into the operating room, recording from human brains!

The fortuitous need for neurophysiological recording during the implantation of deep brain stimulators for movement disordered individuals has allowed me to develop a research plan to try to understand the role of the basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex in motor learning. I came to UC last year, glad to be back in the good old Midwest. Currently, I am investigating the role of the subcortical structures of the basal ganglia, and how they interact with the cortex during adaptation of visually-guided arm movements. I use two methods for examining brain activity during motor learning, one direct and the other indirect. First, I record neurophysiological, EMG, and behavioral data from patients undergoing surgery to improve movement disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, dystonia, or essential tremor. Since patients are awake during this surgery, the opportunity can be used to exam physiological correlates of movement and learning, previously only able to be studied in monkeys. Secondly, I use functional magnetic resonance imaging to study neuronal activation in the whole brain in the same patients, as well as control subjects during motor learning tasks. My research contributes to our understanding of the complex frontal cortical basal ganglia loops in movement disorders as well as in the undiseased human brain.

Selected Publications

C.L. Ojakangas and T.J. Ebner, (1991) Scaling of the metrics of visually-guided arm movements during motor learning in primates. Experimental Brain Research, 85: 314-323.

C.L. Ojakangas and T.J. Ebner, (1992) Purkinje cell complex and simple spike changes during a voluntary arm movement learning task in the monkey. J. of Neurophysiology, 68:2222-2236.

C. Toro, C.Cox., G.Friehs, C.Ojakangas, R.Maxwell, J.Gates, R.Gumnit, T.Ebner (1994) 8-12 Hz rhythmic oscillations in human motor cortex during two-dimensional arm movements: Evidence for representation of kinematic parameters, Electroenceph. and Clin. Neurophysiol. 93:390-403.

C.L.Ojakangas and T.J. Ebner (1994) Purkinje cell complex spike activity during voluntary motor learning: Relationship to kinematics. J. of Neurophysiology 72: 2617-2630.

G.M.Friehs, C.L.Ojakangas, O.Schroettner, E.Ott, G.Pendl (1997) Radiosurgical lesioning of the caudate nucleus as a treamtnet for parkinsonism: A preliminary report. Neurosurgical Research 19:97-103.

N.G.Hatsopoulos, C.L.Ojakangas, L.Paninski, and J.P.Donoghue (1998) Information about movement direction obtained by synchronous activity of motor cortical neurons. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 95:15706-15711.

C.L.Ojakangas & J.P.Donoghue (2006). Plasticity of cerebral motor functions: Implications for repair and rehabilitation. In: M.E. Selzer, L.Cohen, F.H.Gage. Textbook of Neural Repair and Rehabilitation. Cambridge University Press.

C.L.Ojakangas, A. Shaikhouni, G.M.Friehs, A.Caplan, M.Serruya, M.Saleh, D.Morris, J.P.Donoghue (2006). Decoding movement intent from human premotor cortex neurons for neural prosthetic applications. J.of Clinical Neurophysiology 23:577-84.