NIH Study Helps UMass Amherst Scientist Examine Muscles In Depth

AMHERST, Mass. - Researcher Priscilla Clarkson of the exercise science department has seen many muscles at work at the Totman Gym at the University of Massachusetts, but now, thanks to cutting-edge technology, she can examine them in a whole new light. Clarkson is the principal investigator for a three-year, multi-university study of the role of genotype, or genetic makeup, in the development of muscles in the upper arm. The project involves five other public universities and one hospital, and it is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Eric Hoffman, of the Children''s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is clinical director.

"It may be surprising, but we know very little about the genetic aspects of human muscle," Clarkson said. "We don''t really know how genes direct or affect a muscle''s ability to repair itself or to adapt to different situations. Or, why a particular exercise can make one person gain in muscle mass and not another. Using knowledge gained in the Human Genome Project and the use of micro-array technology, we now can look at the genetic components of muscle development closer than ever before."

Clarkson pointed out that this three-year study may help NASA scientists better prepare astronauts for maintaining muscle mass during long space flights, or may provide insights into the causes of muscle-wasting diseases, such as muscular dystrophy.

With a grant of nearly $500,000, Clarkson and her colleagues are studying the development of muscle strength and mass in approximately 1,400 participants at six sites, including UMass, the University of Connecticut, Central Michigan University, West Virginia University, University of Central Florida, and the University of Southern Mississippi. UMass researchers designed the strength test that is being used at all six sites. Participants at the UMass and UConn sites must go to Hartford Hospital for magnetic resonance imaging tests to measure muscle mass before they begin a twice-weekly exercise program for a full semester (12 weeks). The first group of participants is made up of students who do not regularly exercise, and who are willing to submit to genetic profiling through blood tests. In order to make the study uniform, all participants at all sites follow the same regimen, and must guarantee they will attend every exercise and testing session. In exchange, they are paid small stipends.

UMass junior Jeff Bergstrom, of Ashburton, Mass., said he signed up as one of the first six participants on his campus because it was a scientific study. "I feel like I''m part of something that will be important to someone, someday. Besides, we have fun here," he said, referring to the camaraderie that has built up between student participants and graduate project coordinators.

Priscilla Clarkson can be reached at 413/545-6069, or clarkson@excsci.umass.edu.