Larry Abraham, Ed.D.

Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education

University of Texas at Austin

Research Summary

Dr. Abraham has conducted a variety of types of research during his career that are all related to examining the coordination of motor skill performance (movement), and how behavioral outcomes of movement can be enhanced through altering patterns of activation. This work includes attention to the complex musculoskeletal biomechanics of the body as well as the neural control of muscle activation.  In his doctoral research he traced cortical projections of cat vestibular sensory pathways in Dr. Sid Gilman’s lab at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and he later collaborated with Dr. Mike Potegal to examine vestibular influences on performance of spatial orientation tasks in rats.  He also spent a year in the NIH Lab of Neural Control, working with Dr. Gerald Loeb, using surgically-implanted devices to measure simultaneously patterns of changes in individual muscle length, force, and activation, as well as joint angles, in cats during typical behaviors such as walking, trotting, jumping and scratching, as well as the reflex effects elicited by selective peripheral nerve stimulation.  This work emphasized the complexity of neuromotor control, showing how even relatively simple movements require coordination of action throughout many parts of the body.  At UT Austin, Dr. Abraham has used multi-channel surface electromyography (EMG) in conjunction with high-speed film to study varsity athletes in a dozen sports, skilled performers in dance and martial arts, Olympic athletes, and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  Using these same techniques, he has studied interactions of reflex and voluntary components of motor control during whole-body movements.  He has also collaborated with Drs. Marcus Pandy and Ronald Barr to study neuromotor coordination using computational musculoskeletal modeling, using model simulations accompanied by actual measurements from EMG and motion capture data to study contributions of factors that are difficult to measure directly.  He also led a research lab for about ten years at Healthcare Rehabilitation Center, a South Austin care facility for individuals with severe, long-term brain injury, collaborating with physicians and physical therapists to assess and guide treatment protocols.  More recently, he has collaborated with Drs. Waneen Spirduso and Tim Eakin to study coordination in fine motor skills, including effects of task complexity and extended practice.  He is extending this work, in collaboration with Drs. James Sulzer, Paul Ferrari, and David Schnyer to examine relationships between behavioral features of fine motor skill performance and brain activation patterns, with a goal of using neurofeedback to enhance performance and recovery following brain injury.  The underlying thread for this work is the interactions, both mechanical and neural, from many different parts of the body, which combine to result in successful movement outcomes.  Only by recognizing and accounting for this highly complex set of factors can movement improvement result, whether in healthy athletes seeking new performance levels or rehabilitation patients seeking recovery of function.

 Expertise

Dr. Abraham has used a variety of approaches and techniques during his career to study movement and its underlying mechanical and neural control mechanisms.  In animal research models, he was able to use classic neurophysiological techniques of stimulation and recording to trace pathways from sensory receptors to and through the brain and spinal cord and back to targeted muscles.   He has used surface electromyography (EMG) in conjunction with high-speed film to study a variety of aspects of skilled human movement kinematics and whole body coordination, including changes associated with practice and aspects of elite performance.  He also developed and used devices to assess mechanical characteristics of muscle spasticity in patients stroke and spinal-cord injury patients.  More recently, he has collaborated with Drs. Waneen Spirduso and Tim Eakin to study coordination in fine motor skills requiring multi-digit dexterity, including effects of task complexity and extended practice.  He is extending this work, in collaboration with Drs. James Sulzer, Paul Ferrari, and David Schnyer to examine relationships between behavioral features of fine motor skill performance and brain activation patterns.  Dr. Abraham teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in motor learning, neuromuscular control, and applied human biomechanics.

 Collaborative Interests

Dr. Abraham has enjoyed collaborating with colleagues from across campus in his research at UT Austin, including faculty members in pharmacy, psychology, mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, and geosciences, as well as his colleagues in kinesiology.  He is a member of the graduate studies committees for kinesiology, biomedical engineering, and neuroscience, in which programs he has supervised and co-supervised graduate students.  He is always open to new opportunities for collaboration.

More information about his research is available on his website.