Li had been doing research at the Beckman Institute on Dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, by focusing on motor learning deficits in the striatum, a part of the basal ganglia system in the brain. Motor learning function is known to be located in the cerebellum, but Li said his research reveals important new information about both the location and function of motor learning.
A paper on the research results by Li and his collaborators titled Disrupted motor learning and long-term synaptic plasticity in mice lacking NMDAR1 in the striatum earned the cover of the Oct. 10, 2006, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The No. 1 implication of the paper is about the location of motor learning," Li said. "More recently people started to see that cerebellum disruption in fact does not impair motor learning, or vice versa. So there is thought that other sites might be participating in motor learning."
Li and his collaborators used knockout mice - rather than pharmacological methods as in other previous studies on the subject - to show that motor learning is also happening in the striatum.
"We provide a much more solid answer to this question using the genetic engineering method, which is more reliable and reproducible," Li said. "The most significant part (of the research) is to be able to link up particular behavior failure with a specific cellular function or disruption, and the mechanism underneath."
Li, a former member of the NeuroTech group who joined the faculty of the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the Fall of 2006, said the findings apply not just to Dystonia but could also aid researchers in treating other movement disorders.
"Our findings on the clinical side have implications for Huntington's disease, for Dystonia, and also for a variety of other movement disorder diseases," Li said.
Along with Li, researchers Mai Dang, Fumiaki Yokoi, and Yanyan Wang of the Beckman Institute, and Henry Yin and David Lovinger of National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, contributed to the published work. The work was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, with supplemental funding from Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, National Science Foundation, Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson Foundation, Inc.