Could tadpoles reveal secret of animal movement?

Tuesday 6 August 2002

University of St Andrews scientists have been awarded a grant to explore how the nervous system controls animal movements like walking and swimming.

The three-year study is a joint research initiative between Professor Keith Sillar, Head of the University’s School of Biology and Dr John Simmers, Research Director at the CNRS Department of Biological Sciences in the University of Bordeaux.

Focusing on the relatively simple nervous system of tadpoles, it is hoped that the project will lead to a better understanding of how the nervous system controls the movements of all back-boned animals (vertebrates) during development.

Professor Sillar explained, “All animals with backbones share a common evolutionary past with certain elements of their physiology and development adhering to common principles of operation.”

The Leverhulme Trust has provided £88,500 to fund the study which will focus on the modifications that take place in the nervous system of frog tadpoles as they undergo metamorphosis. The amazing transformation involves the transition from fish-like swimming to the more familiar limbed locomotion displayed by frogs and other terrestrial vertebrates. At critical times during the “metamorphic climax”, the neural networks controlling the two types of movement must co-exist in the same physical space within the spinal cord and brainstem. The neural circuits controlling the limbs must therefore take over from those controlling the tail muscles, yet nothing is known about how this example of neural plasticity is accomplished.

The significance of the research is unpredictable, however, the nervous systems of most animals, including humans, display startling plasticity – for example in response to injury, during development or simply as a result of new experiences. Like the many more obvious physical changes that occur during metamorphosis in frogs, the nervous system is able to wire and re-wire itself many times throughout an organism’s life. However, very little is understood about the mechanisms underlying these processes. The simpler and more comprehensible nervous systems of tadpoles may yield insights into the secrets of the nervous system which are of general importance to all animals with backbones.

The grant will also support exchange visits between the two groups – Dr Simon Merrywest, a neuroscientist and recent St Andrews PhD graduate, will form the St Andrews link while Dr Denis Combes, a colleague with Dr Simmers, will make frequent trips to Scotland. The team of four will meet up at the forthcoming Annual Meeting of the American Society for Neuroscience in Orlando in November 2002 where they will present the preliminary results of the research.


NOTE TO EDITORS – Picture of tadpoles – in jpeg form – available from Claire Grainger – contact details below. For further information on the research, please contact Professor Sillar direct on 01334 463501/3503.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact: Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st- View University press releases on- line at Ref: tadpoles/standrews/chg/7august2002


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