Since 2005, kinesiology professor Leigh Ann Mrotek has used her fascination with the way the body works to fuel her research and teach students at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
“I used to be springboard diving coach for young kids and I was amazed at how rapidly and accurately divers could adjust their movements to salvage botched dives. Even if they could not say what went wrong, they could quickly detect and fix errors and be reasonably successful,” Mrotek said.
It was her interest in how the brain controls the body—and is able to make corrections—that led Mrotek to begin working on research with stroke patients.
“It is amazing. Some of these people have had major trauma to their brain and still are able to function, other people have a much smaller trauma and but have huge problems controlling their movements,” Mrotek said. “It’s through research that we are trying to figure out why some areas of the brain are critical and others are redundant.”
Mrotek’s research also examines sensory contributions to motor control in stroke patients, as half of stroke patients lose proprioception.
“We are looking at the impact of feeling loss on a person’s capability to move,” Mrotek said. “During most movements we operate on a feedback control system. For example, if you make a plan to move, such as reaching for a glass and bringing it to your mouth, as you do this you receive sensory information about the movements and that information is used to modify the ongoing movement. That’s feedback control.”
“If you can’t feel where your hand is, it is hard to know if the movement is correct or needs modifications,” Mrotek said.
Funded through National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, Mrotek’s research is a collaboration between researchers at Marquette University, Columbia University, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Northwestern University.
“Our long-term goal is to try to find a way to return that lost sensory information to the brain,” Mrotek said. “We provide feedback to a part of the body that retains sensation. Hopefully by providing this feedback in another way it will help improve how well stroke survivors can move. It makes me happy to solve problems and make survivors’ lives just a little bit easier.”
The goal of the research is to identify ways to use engineering technology as a substitute so that people can interpret, monitor and correct their own movements again.
Mrotek uses her research interests in her courses at UW Oshkosh.
“In my motor learning class I teach exactly what I study and I try to apply science in class,” Mrotek said. “While most of our students likely won’t spend their careers working with stroke patients, they might work with people who have injuries impacting their joints and muscles, which can cause changes in proprioception. My class helps students understand the how to teach someone to improve motor skills under a variety of conditions.”
“My students need to understand the nuts and bolts of how the brain and body work together so they can teach their clients effective movement strategies and improve motor control,” Mrotek said.
Mrotek earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UW-Milwaukee and her doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.