Maurice A. Smith

Maurice A. Smith

  • Gordon McKay Professor of Bioengineering

Profile

The human brain is perhaps the most remarkable motor control device in existence. More than 10 billion neurons comprise the motor system in the human brain. In the face of long sensory delays, high levels of noise from multiple sources, and more than 600 highly interdependent muscles to control, our motor systems can deftly and robustly command motor activation patterns that allow us to talk and sing and sit and stand and run and jump and throw and catch - often without even paying attention. Furthermore, with practice we can learn a myriad of seemingly "unnatural" motor skills from surfing and skiing to dribbling a basketball and driving a stick-shift car.

How do we accomplish these things? How do our brains maintain robust control over the physical movements of our bodies? How do we learn new motor skills? And how do these control mechanisms go bad in neurologic disease? Unfortunately, we, as neuroscientists and neuroengineers, do not yet have good answers to these questions. These are the questions that my research lab addresses.

We are broadly interested in how the human brain controls movement, in particular how the brain learns and perfects new motor skills. Our work focuses on understanding motor learning in general. However, as a model we study how the brain optimizes the execution of voluntary reaching arm movements. We study both how this process works in healthy individuals and how it goes awry in neurologic disease.

To explore these questions, our lab combines approaches from robotics, computational modeling, functional brain imaging, and behavioral neuroscience. We use robot arms to produce novel perturbations and force environments that alter the dynamics of movement. Subjects are asked to make arm movements while holding onto the handle of a robot manipulandum that produces these novel force environments, and with practice, their brains learn to adapt to these environments by gradually altering patterns of muscle activation.

Using such systems, we have shown that in-flight and trial-to-trial compensatory mechanisms have distinct neural bases and are differentially disturbed in certain neurologic diseases. We have shown that the brain's ability to perform real-time error feedback control can be dramatically disturbed in Huntington's disease. Furthermore, our work has revealed that such dysfunction begins to surface years before the disease's symptoms become apparent, making it an attractive marker for future clinical tests of drugs to stave off the disease.

Contact Information

Office:325 Pierce Hall
Email:mas@seas.harvard.edu
Office Phone:(617) 495-9287
Lab Name:Neuromotor Control Lab
Lab Location:319 Maxwell Dworkin
Lab Phone:(617) 384-7902
Assistant:Jessa S. Piaia
Assistant Office:Pierce Hall 310
Assistant Phone:617-496-9676

Primary Teaching Area

Positions & Employment

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

  • Present: Assistant Professor of Bioengineering

Honors

  • McKnight Scholar, McKnight Endowment for Neuroscience, 2007
  • Sloan Research Fellow, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 2007
  • Wallace H. Coulter Foundation Early Career Award in Bioengineering, 2006
  • David Israel Macht Research Prize for most outstanding gruaduate student basic science research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 2000
  • Society for the Neural Control of Movement - Student Travel Fellowship, 2000
  • National Institues of Health Minority Predoctoral Fellowship, 1993-2001
  • Thomas G. Arnold Prize for best senior undergraduate research project in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, 1993
  • National Society of Black Engineers Southeast Region Member of the Year, 1992
  • Vanderbilt University Chancellor’s Scholarship, 1989-93