Despite the apparent differences between animals and their behaviors, they all are subject to the same constraints. All animals use a nervous system to control their motions, which must follow the laws of physics. Therefore, this NeuroNex Research Network seeks to understand how animals move by studying animals of different sizes and with unique evolutionary histories: Vertebrates (mice, rats, and cats), mollusks (sea hares), and insects (fruit flies). The differences between these species will inform how physics and evolution have shaped the nervous system. Understanding motion across different organisms and scales may lead to robots with more graceful, coordinated motion. Additionally, this Network enhances the training of American engineers and scientists by exchanging post-doctoral trainees and students between laboratories, providing them opportunities to work with different model organisms, and broadening the trainees’ education. The activities of this Network enrich existing outreach programs through interactions with international, interdisciplinary collaborators and allow for new, larger initiatives. Public demonstrations, day camps, and internships carried out as part of this project expose K-12 students to interdisciplinary research and international collaborators’ ideas and culture. This Network also constructs exhibits at natural science museums in its major cities and develops an interactive website describing how very different animals solve similar problems.

Animals move to seek food, mates, and shelter. In the phyla Arthropoda, Mollusca, and Chordata, the nervous system cephalized towards a higher-level brain and lower-level sensorimotor network. The brain would not exist without a body, and yet little is understood about how the nervous system controls and coordinates distributed body parts. Many fundamental questions remain unanswered: How is neural information encoded and communicated? How does the system correct for environmental perturbations? How do passive biomechanics affect the neuronal control of behavior? This leads to the foundational question: How do nervous systems control and execute interactions with the environment? This international Network of interdisciplinary research groups consists of modelers, engineers, and experimentalists to explore the Communication, Coordination, and Control of Neuromechanical Systems (C3NS). This NeuroNex Network investigates a foundational question in model genera from three phyla: adult Drosophila from Arthropoda, Aplysia from Mollusca, and small mammals from Chordata. Each interdisciplinary research group studies the control of a behavior in which the body interacts with the environment. Investigators explore how higher-level command centers (HLCCs) generate descending commands to lower-level motor centers (LLMCs), how LLMCs control the body to produce desired behavior, and how LLMCs generate ascending signals back to HLCCs. The animal models of C3NS allow the investigation of these questions across degrees of nervous system complexity and ranges of dynamic scale (i.e., size and speed) using the same conceptual modeling framework. This effort will create a bottom-up theory for how nervous systems control movement during environmental interactions. This project is co-funded by Emerging Frontiers in the Directorate for Biological Sciences and Robust Intelligence in the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI)
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Edda Thiels
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Case Western Reserve University
United States
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