supports diversity in health-related research
Researchers work to understand muscle weakness in an aging
By Elizabeth Boyle
Oct. 31, 2011
Ohio University Heritage College of
project has the potential to advance treatment practices for a
debilitating condition, but it’s not just the research that’s
remarkable about this project―it’s also the story of one of its
investigators, OU-HCOM postdoctoral researcher M.J. “Matt”
Conaway has six academic degrees, a tally of honors and awards, and
a list of peer-reviewed publications to his credit. His resume
wasn’t always this full, however. In 1974, Conaway, who has mixed
quadriplegic spastic athetoid cerebral palsy, was the first disabled
student in Georgia to be sent to public school. Now in his forties,
he recalls having to “struggle in epic proportions to be considered
worthy of being in the academic upper echelon.”
After earning his doctorate in biomedical engineering from the
University of Iowa in 2010, Conaway sought to collaborate with
respected muscle weakness researcher Brian Clark, Ph.D.,
associate professor of physiology and director of the
Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological
Institute (OMNI). Conaway―who is unable to walk, has
minimal use of
his hands, and communicates primarily through a computer, by typing
with a mouth stick―worked with Clark from his home in Iowa City to
develop a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research proposal.
In August, the pair received a $194,206 NIH grant to study muscle
weakness. The award is meant to promote diversity in health-related
research and covers the cost of Conaway’s postdoctoral fellowship.
Their project aims to provide a better understanding of the
physiological processes that take place to cause muscle weakness, a
condition often seen in the elderly and those immobilized by casts.
To do so, Clark, the project’s principal investigator, uses
electrodes to stimulate a nerve in the forearm of each subject
recruited for the study. He records the forces produced by the
stimulated muscles and sends information derived from that to
Conaway, who is using it to develop a mathematical model that
predicts the dynamics of calcium movement in skeletal muscle.
Creating such models is Conaway’s strength. His doctoral research
involved mathematical modeling of changes in skeletal muscle that
occur with spinal cord injuries.
“We applied for this grant,” Clark explained, “to sort of take his
background in modeling and spinal cord injury and my background
looking at muscle weakness, disuse and aging and combine them to do
“We have so much to teach each other,” Conaway adds, pointing to
their differing backgrounds.
Their work could lead to a more detailed understanding of the
mechanisms of muscle weakness that—in the long term—help develop and
guide interventions for the many Americans with the condition.
Approximately 45 percent of the older U.S. population report
difficulties performing activities of daily living, which to a large
extent are limited by muscle weakness.
Clark and Conaway’s grant is a supplement to another NIH award to
Clark on this topic that was funded in July 2010. Through the
$426,000 NIH grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, Clark and OMNI collaborators James Thomas, P.T., Ph.D.,
and David Russ, P.T., Ph.D., from the School of Rehabilitation and
Communication Sciences are working to understand the
neurological aspects of muscle weakness.
This latest grant provides another dimension of knowledge on the
topic, Clark said. For its three-year duration, Conaway will work
from his home in Iowa City, where he has established accommodations
for his physical disabilities. He and Clark use email and the video
and phone service Skype to communicate, and Clark plans to visit
Iowa multiple times over the course of the project.
Conaway, whose father is an osteopathic physician, said he considers
it a great honor and a lifelong dream come true to work for an
osteopathic college. With so much achieved thus far, Conaway had
this advice for anyone facing a similar struggle as him: Get out
there and do something. Things are actually much easier now than
they were when he was growing up.
“Never regret leaving it all behind, as I have done, for the best
life that you deserve,” he said. “You just might get it.”
M.J. “Matt” Conaway, Ph.D.
Brian Clark, Ph.D.