Published: 18-05-2021 18:00 | Updated: 04-10-2021 16:56

New thesis explores the development and diversity of proprioceptive neurons

Cover of Haohao Wu's doctoral thesis, illustrated by Irene Pallucchi.
Illustration: Irene Pallucchi.

Hi there, Haohao Wu, PhD student at the Department of Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet! You will defend your thesis entitled "The molecular basis of the development and diversity of proprioceptive neurons : a story of surviving and thriving" on 21 May 2021.

Self-portrait in lab environment.
Haohao Wu.

What is the thesis about?

"It is about the development and diversity of proprioceptive neurons. They are primary sensory neurons of our body position and movement. The proper functioning of those neurons is essential for the robustness, efficiency and precision of movements, and indispensable for our daily life. In my thesis I have investigated proprioceptive neurons using modern genetic and genomic tools."

What are your main findings?

"I think there are some results which provide very important tools for the research field of sensory and motor systems. For instance, the identification of genetic markers for proprioceptive neuron subtypes will enable the studies of their respective functions in controlling our movement."

"There is also interesting knowledge gained from unexpected findings, such as more diverse subtypes of proprioceptive neurons than we previously learnt. These subtypes have different signal transmission speed, selective muscle targets and varied dynamic sensitivity. This presents a more complex and sophisticated sensory encoding of our body movements."

"Lastly, the studies included in this thesis were carried out in mice, but some observations could be interesting for investigations in humans. For example, the relative abundance of proprioceptive neuron subtypes changes after exercise. This shows that our sensory system might have the capacity to adapt to exercises."

How can this knowledge be useful for improving people’s health?

"Usually it takes time to translate the knowledge from this type of fundamental research to clinical applications. So what I’m saying here is rather speculative. I think the finding that proprioceptive neurons remain plastic in adult might be potentially interesting for clinical studies. Because plasticity gives them the possibility to be manipulated through trainings or pharmaceutics, which could be beneficial for restoring their functions after injuries or in elderly".

What are your future plans?   

"Next semester, I will join Sylvia Arber's renowned laboratory in Basel, Switzerland as a postdoc. My future research will follow my long-term interest in mechanisms of motor control. Particularly, I will work on the genetic and functional identification of neuronal populations in the brain which are involved in the control of motor behaviour."