As a sprinter on his university track team, movement fascinated Andrew D. Nordin.
The idea of applying the fundamental questions about matter and mechanics to movement and performance intrigued Nordin, leading him down a path that culminated in earning UNLV’s first doctorate in kinesiology in 2015.
Now conducting research and development of hardware at the University of Michigan and University of Florida, Nordin has led the charge on technology that allows scientists to time to measure brain activity during dynamic movement, tracking subjects as they encountered obstacles while walking and running.
He developed two new electroencephalography sensors and methods allowing him to collect accurate electrical brain activity that was previously unattainable. It was a significant enough breakthrough to earn Nordin the 2020 Brain Products MoBI award for excellence in the field of Mobile Brain/Body Imaging, but he might not have started down the path without a nudge from a UNLV mentor.
School of Integrated Health Sciences associate dean and professor Janet Dufek gave Nordin a strong push toward a multidisciplinary approach that led him to explore various lines of research.
“She outlined the philosophy that in some ways biomechanics is providing the tools to quantify movement, but if you want to understand anything deeper, at some point, you’re going to have to incorporate some physiological measures,” Nordin said.
This line of thinking ultimately led him to connect the dots between biomechanics, locomotion, movement control, and brain activity, inspiring his development the EEG sensors.
One sensor measures a mixture of brain activity and “noise” induced by movement of the recording equipment. At the same time, another electrode measures only noise. Using signal processing methods he learned at UNLV, Nordin created new algorithms to separate and remove the noise from the EEG measurements as people are in motion at various walking and running speeds.
It allowed him to see how various parts of the brain responded and interacted with each other when a person encountered a physical obstacle as they were on a treadmill. For the first time scientists could view how the brain controls movements in real time.
He and his research supervisor, Dan Ferris of the University of Florida, didn’t believe the results at first.
“The data were so significant, we were skeptical,” he said. “As scientists, we tried to poke holes in the data.”
However, there were consistent brain responses across all walking and running speeds that did not match the isolated noise recordings. This proved the data was accurate. Nordin and his research partners confirmed when people are in motion the brain recognizes an obstacle first then sends a signal to the muscles to avoid it. This brain response reliably happens two steps before reaching the obstacle.
While it seems like common sense, measuring brain activity when people were moving has been challenging due to the limitations of sensors available at the time. No one had been able to capture results with humans.
Earlier research had mostly been limited to static experiments, people sitting at a desk, for example, because the signal quality of existing EEG sensors picked up noise during movement, contaminating the data.
Now an assistant professor at Texas A&M, Nordin will build his lab and a team of researchers to further explore applications for neurological disorders and to apply these learnings in a real-world context.
“Researchers can use this process to establish a baseline of how the brain works during movement in a healthy population which can then be compared to people who have suffered a stroke or who have Parkinson’s or other disorders,” he said. “Our goal is to understand how the brain controls movement and how this can change over time,” Nordin said.