Purposeful and intelligent movements seem to happen with little thought; yet a single movement involves a complex neural network that spans multiple regions of the brain. Understanding the internal processes that leads to planning and execution of voluntary movement is critical to understanding cognitive disorders and is the research focus of Dr. Nuo Li, the newest McNair Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine.
The McNair Scholars program at Baylor College of Medicine is supported by The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation and managed by the McNair Medical Institute, which is headquartered in Houston. It identifies and funds world-class researchers in breast and pancreatic cancer, Type 1 diabetes and the neurosciences enabling them to collaborate and conduct transformative biomedical research.
“Brain functions are incredibly complex. The McNair scholarship gives me the resources that I need to carry out the work I envisioned, and provides me a unique platform for needed collaborations across the many fields working toward the same goal,” said Li, who joins Baylor as an assistant professor of neuroscience.
During his postdoctoral work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus, Li developed tools and behavioral models to understand when and how activity in specific cortical regions of the brain drive sensory-guided motor planning in mice. During planning, sensory information must be gathered, set to memory, translated to motor command, and then carried out behaviorally. Such process may happen even before the subject is aware of the desired movement.
Li has been able to identify a premotor cortical region in mice that shows responses that predict voluntary movements seconds in advance, thus making it possible to begin to study the cellular and circuit mechanisms underlying motor planning.
“The work in my lab at Baylor is aimed at understanding how different types of neurons interact to give rise to the activity patterns seen preceding the movement. We use this knowledge and causal manipulations of neurons to establish relationships between neuronal circuits, activity patterns, and behavior,” Li said. “By studying motor planning in mice, I hope our work will contribute to neuroscience by providing an exemplar case of how a cognitive behavior is implemented at the level of cell types and circuits.”
Prior to joining Baylor Li earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering from Washington University, studying in the lab of Dr. Dora Angelaki, currently a professor of neuroscience at Baylor. He earned his Ph.D. in systems neuroscience and computational neurosciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and completed his postdoctoral fellowship with the HHMI Janelia Farm Research Campus.
Li has been honored and recognized throughout his career, being awarded and named to fellowships such as the NRSA Individual Pre-doctoral Fellowship, and the Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship. He continues to publish numerous papers and abstracts, which started during his undergraduate studies, and has been an invited guest speaker and presenter at seminars and conferences throughout his academic career.
There are now a total of 14 McNair Scholars at Baylor. To see a full list and to learn more, visit the McNair Scholars program.