Colorado State Muscles Alive! program teaches community about muscle activity

Smartphones are commonly used to communicate between people, but smartphones can also be used to see communication between the brain and muscles.

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David Rasiccy, 25, tracks muscular control with the help of assistant Breonna Bost, 22.(Photo Credit: Abbie Parr)

Colorado State University professor and researcher Brian Tracy, with students in his Neuromuscular Function Lab in the Department of Health and Exercise Science, studies how the nervous system communicates with muscle fibers. The Muscles Alive! program is an extension of his research at CSU, whereby he creates interactive and informative learning opportunities for people at different educational levels.

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The Muscles Alive! team has provided over 2,900 people with the opportunity to see and hear real-time conversations between their brain and their muscles. In 2013, Tracy, with the help of student volunteers, started Muscles Alive!, a neuroscience education outreach program targeting school kids in grades 4-12.

Recording the electrical activity of muscles, called electromyogram (EMG), provides a window into the communication between the brain and the muscles. The EMG is a direct readout of the nervous system’s control over muscle activity.

“(For some human muscles), two neurons (are) all you need to get from thought of movement to muscle movement,” Tracy said during his Muscles Alive! lecture and demonstration Monday evening at Science on Tap hosted by Pateros Creek Brewery.

At one of the Muscles Alive! demonstration tables, Josef Schneider, a junior studying sports medicine in the Department of Health and Exercise Science, sat with two electrodes over the flexor muscles in his forearm. As he flexed his forearm, a green EMG signal synced with his forearm muscle movements.

Using an amplifier, EMG signals can be seen on a smartphone using a free app called Backyard Brains. According to Tracy, an increase in EMG amplitude indicates that more of your muscle fibers are receiving input from your nervous system.

Following the experiment, Schneider said he liked seeing the action potentials, or the electric activity, that occurs during muscle movement.

“It’s pretty cool, and I didn’t realize you could hear and see the action potentials,” Schneider said.

Muscles Alive! also benefits undergraduate and graduate students, who can volunteer and work through independent study with the program.

Allie Payton, a recent graduate from the sports medicine program in the Department of Health and Exercise Science, has volunteered with the Muscles Alive! program for about a year. Payton said one of the most rewarding aspects of her work has been the childrens’ reaction to seeing how their muscles work.

“Young kids are creative in experimenting with the equipment and get really excited to see their EMG,” Payton said.

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The goal of the Muscles Alive! program is to bolster children’s interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), as well as increase public understanding of muscle physiology, biomedical research and science literacy.

The impact of the Muscles Alive! program extends beyond the CSU campus and Fort Collins community. Science outreach programs in the state and other parts of the country have expressed interest in doing similar events and demonstrations, according to Tracy.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Christina Dennison can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @csdennison.