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Kinesiology Ramps Up Research on the Brain-Body Connection

Young man with electrodes study on head
Note:  The following is a feature story from the College of Education’s New Educator Magazine. Five case studies are available.

There have been many changes in the Department of Kinesiology in its over 100-year history: nine different department names, becoming part of the School of Education in the 1950s and rising in recent years to become the nation’s sixth-ranked place for graduate study in the field.

Since its creation, kinesiology at Michigan State University has been rooted primarily in physical activity and sports. In fact, during its early years, the department was also home to athletics, including football coaching legends Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty and Clarence “Biggie” Munn.

Kinesiology, the scientific study of human movement, has long played a role in student health at the university, but as the department has changed over the years, so has its focus.

An integral element of kinesiology is how the brain and body interact to produce movement. Many departments of kinesiology in higher education institutions around the world look at how cognition and motor skills change with age, especially late in life—but MSU takes a look at movement from the beginning, focusing on pediatrics.

And the study of motor skills in children and adolescents actually has a long history at MSU. This began with the arrival of Vern Seefeldt in 1966, continued through notable research such as the landmark longitudinal Motor Performance Study and persists today with a new wave of faculty comprising the cognitive and motor neuroscience team. With the addition of three new faculty members in 2014, this group of five is now the largest in the department.

To Chairperson Alan Smith, it all connects: “Many of today’s concerns come from a public health standpoint, so we can’t leave behind the understanding of how you control precise movements and how you come to learn to move.”

There is still particularly little knowledge about how cognitive and motor behavior develops in children—and that means many questions for families, educators and health professionals as they strive to do what’s best for our future generations.

Experiments in the past studied children and their motor behavior mostly through observation alone. Technology now allows us to look past the observable and to the inner workings of how the brain makes the body do what it does.

This is made possible at MSU with 2,790 square feet of newly renovated space in the basement of IM Circle, home of the Department of Kinesiology. It took six months and $905,000 to make the modern technology laboratories from old locker rooms, increasing the capabilities and the opportunities available to both faculty and students.

And the students have been coming in droves: In the past decade alone, the number of Kinesiology and Athletic Training undergraduate students has grown by more than 75 percent. Students come to learn in an elite environment from the best—which is why Smith looks toward faculty members with well-rounded backgrounds that have plenty to offer.

“As we’ve selected new faculty for the department, we’ve had an eye toward how they can integrate with each other and with the other groups,” he said.

Faculty on the cognitive and motor neurosciences team are banding together to lead studies that have implications for rehabilitation, children with disabilities, athletes with concussions and more. The collaboration extends outside the walls of IM Circle to the College of Engineering and the medical colleges at MSU, as well as beyond campus.

With new space comes great creativity, and although some members of the team have only been on campus for a few months, it hasn’t stopped them from making immediate strides in research.

Researcher bios:

–Story courtesy of Lauren Ebelt and Nicole Geary via College of Education

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