The vibrant, diverse brain health community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the brain health space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Manuel Hernandez, PhD
Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Manuel Hernandez, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health and the College of Applied Health Sciences, has affiliate appointments in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and is the principal investigator of the Mobility and Fall Prevention Research Laboratory. He completed his doctorate in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Prof. Hernandez's research is focused on the use of experimental and theoretical models of risk factors for injury or disability during the performance of goal-directed movements in older adults with and without neurological disorders. He is interested in the behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying postural dysfunction in older adults and particularly in the development of behavioral and neural biomarkers for early detection of neurological disorders.
Explain your research in brain health; what are you investigating?
Mobility and cognitive impairments are common in persons with multiple sclerosis (MS). Whereas walking has traditionally been viewed as an autonomous process, recent evidence suggests that cognitive processes such as attention and executive function have a significant impact on gait function. Experimentally, walking performance declines when performing a concurrent cognitive task (i.e., dual-task cost) and the decline is associated with walking impairment, fall-related anxiety, and fall risk in persons with MS. This has real-world significance, considering that many routine activities of daily living require the ability to perform two or more motor and cognitive tasks concurrently. To that end, we require a better understanding of the neural and psychological underpinnings of the dual-task cost of walking, as a major step forward for the design of future interventions targeting impaired mobility and cognitive dysfunction or anxiety in persons with MS. Our goal in the Mobility and Fall Prevention Research Laboratory (MFPRL) is to further our understanding of the volitional control of mobility, and particularly gait, and contribute to the existing body of fall prevention research in older adults with and without neurological disorders.
How are you conducting your research?
We use state-of-the-art biomechanical tools, wearable sensors of muscle and cardiac activity, and non-invasive brain imaging to simultaneously record movements, heart, and brain activity during functional whole-body movements. Using interdisciplinary approaches, including machine learning and nonlinear dynamical analysis, our lab examines the 1) underlying behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying postural and gait dysfunction in older adults with neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis; and 2) multimodal analysis of real-time state anxiety changes and changes due to disease progression.
How does being part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Given the interdisciplinary nature of our work, our lab collaborates with colleagues in medicine, neuroscience, physics, engineering, and kinesiology across the University of Illinois campus and other national universities and institutions. Being part of the Illinois community, an open and collaborative environment, has opened the doors for wide-ranging interdisciplinary collaborations between colleagues and collaborators from medicine, mathematics, engineering, psychology, neuroscience, and kinesiology, which may not be possible elsewhere. Given the complexity of health and wellness problems, having interdisciplinary teams allows us to work towards transformative solutions that can make a real-world impact.
In what ways do you envision your work improving society or reaching people?
Through the identification of salient neural and behavioral features of changes in emotional state or disease from wearable devices, we aim to provide objective and quantifiable information to end users and assist in the process of disease identification, disease progression, and wellness in older adults.
What led to your interest in this area of study?
My experience with family, and especially my two grandmothers, has led to my interest in the identification of neural mechanisms underlying fall risk in older adults. Given the impact that falls can have on an individual’s quality of life, my work has been focused on the identification of risk factors and work towards earlier intervention targeting novel modifiable risk factors.