Ask A Scientist

How does your brain send messages to the rest of your body to move?

Asked by: Claire Tripp
School: Johnson City Intermediate School
Grade: 3
Teacher: Mrs. Goroleski
Hobbies/Interests: Art, music, soccer 
Career Interest: Scientist, college teacher, artist, musician

Answer from Christopher Bishop

Professor and Chair

Research area: Psychology/neuroscience Interests/hobbies: Swimming, trombone, hiking, snowboarding, family time

Almost 4 billion years ago, microscopic organisms began to move on their own. These simple critters used whip-like flagella or tiny hair-like cilia to move through their fluid environments. Their mobility helped them capture food, escape other organisms and find safe places to live. This was a big advantage for them. Over the millions of years that followed, the ability to move became more complex and specialized. Creatures began to swim like fish, run like cheetahs or even fly like eagles. What is cool is that many modern-day mammals including rats, monkeys and humans share many of the same brain parts to control movement. This has helped scientists learn how the brain helps you to move, and even how diseases affect movement.

So what happens in our brains when we want to pick up our pencil in science class or even throw a ball in gym? It all starts in a place called the motor cortex, located right on the top of your head in a little band that extends almost from ear to ear. It’s set up like a miniature map of your body. The signal to move your toes originates at the top of your head, while the signal to move your tongue starts near your ear. These signals to move get sent along special cells called neurons to deeper areas of the brain that filter the information, until it finally leaves the brain, heads down your spinal cord and activates muscles that do the rest.

Now, if you’ve practiced these movements before, your brain will likely have a movement program, kind of like a memory, that becomes activated. That way, you’ll be able to type faster, hit a ball farther or play the clarinet better. Researchers studying movement have learned that when the brain gets damaged by a stroke or Parkinson’s disease, people may have trouble starting to move or performing the programs they stored though practice. Under these circumstances they may need to re-learn to move or take medication that helps to activate movement pathways.

There is one final thing that everyone should know. Science has shown us that physical exercise is extremely important for brain health. Exercise not only improves athletic performance, but also creates better brain signaling, and even reduces the risk of brain disease. So get out there and swim like a fish and run like a cheetah -- it’ll do your brain good!

Last Updated: 3/1/17