Pianos, exercise bikes and more: Inside U of T’s sport medicine labs

(Photo by Dewey Chang)

Enhancing motor skills through sports medicine

A shiny black piano may not be the kind of instrument visitors would expect to find in a research lab at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) but that is exactly what they would discover – along with a transcranial direct current stimulation device and an exercise bike.

The faculty’s Training and Enhancing Motor Performance Outcomes (TEMPO) lab is is where Joyce Chen, assistant professor of motor learning, and her team of graduate students study how factors such as aerobic exercise, non-invasive brain stimulation – and music – can enhance a person’s ability to learn motor skills, from putting the golf ball to using their upper limbs again after a stroke.

“My research aims to discover the limits of the brain’s plasticity, its ability to change as we learn,” says Chen. “Using fundamental and applied research approaches, we want to understand how far we can push motor performance in a musician or athlete, and find ways to enhance the brain’s plasticity so that people with stroke can improve their capacity to move.”

Chen’s lab was one of many on display during a recent KPE lab tour organized by the faculty to showcase some of the new and renovated research spaces at the Warren Stevens Building (Athletic Centre) and the Goldring Centre for High Performance on the St. George campus, which house most of KPE’s research units, labs and centres.

Motion capture technology and movement data

Located in the lower levels of the Warren Stevens building is the Biomechanics of Orthopedics and Sport Medicine lab, run by Timothy Burkhart, an assistant professor of orthopaedic biomechanics at KPE,  in conjunction with the orthopedic surgeons of the University of Toronto Orthopaedic Sports Medicine group. Here, athletes simulate game moves that put stress on the hips and knees. Motion-capture technology helps generate computer models that accurately estimate the forces on the hips and knees – a non-invasive way to retrieve data that used to require intramuscular probes. And a markerless motion-tracking system videotapes the athletes doing exactly what they would do in their natural environment, for example, playing a game of basketball on a court. 

“The combination of the two techniques – capturing force and movement data in the lab and analyzing videotape of the players on court – produces an unprecedentedly granular level of analysis,” says Burkhart. “What we learn can help both athletes and the everyday healthy population that’s relatively active with injury prevention and rehabilitation.”

High performance sport and chronic disease

Just down the hall from Burkhart’s lab is the Human Physiology Lab where Ira Jacobs, professor of exercise physiology at KPE, and his team of graduate students are exploring therapeutic interventions, as well as training and physical activity recommendations for people across the human spectrum. 

On one side of that spectrum are children with chronic disease. Jacobs and his team are studying the interaction between physical activity, nutrition, physiological function and disease severity in children with chronic disease with the overall goal of rapidly translating their research findings into patient care with new, disease-specific therapeutic interventions.

The lab’s high performance sport research program is designed to investigate the other end of the human condition. 

“More specifically, we perform investigations on how the human body works at the limits of its capabilities and how we can push these limits using recovery strategies, nutritional supplementation, programming and testing,” says Jacobs, who is also interim director of the recently founded Tanenbaum Institute for Science in Sport (TISS). “These limits can be related to elite sport training and performance or to human performance in extreme conditions like altitude, heat and cold.”

Treating cardiovascular health with exercise

Back at the Goldring Centre, Robert Bentley, assistant professor of cardiovascular physiology, is conducting research into how the heart and blood vessels function during exercise. 

“I study the mechanisms of oxygen delivery during exercise and what that means not only for performance, but also for exercise tolerance,” he says. “My research spans the health spectrum, from basic science investigations in healthy populations to clinical investigations of patients with heart failure and pulmonary hypertension.”

One of the machines Bentley uses in his research is the stress echocardiography tilt-recline table ergometer, a specialized bicycle that allows study participants to exercise while the researchers manipulate them by tilting or reclining the bicycle as needed to obtain optimal images of the heart.

“This piece of equipment allows for cardiac imaging to be completed during exercise, which is pretty exceptional,” he says. “If you do not have this special bicycle, individuals often have to exercise on a treadmill or upright bicycle until some criteria is met and then quickly transition themselves onto a table upon which images of the heart can be obtained.”

Bentley’s Cardiovascular Exercise Physiology lab is housed on the fourth floor of the Goldring Centre, which has been significantly expanded in the recent renovation to provide individual labs and shared research space for a number of faculty.

The Kirkham lab, led by Amy Kirkham, assistant professor of clinical cardiovascular health, uses advanced imaging and lifestyle interventions to understand, treat and improve the health of women with cancer and cardiovascular disease. 

Michael Hutchison, associate professor of sport concussion and director of the concussion program at the MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, specializes in sport-related concussion research in various populations, from adolescents to professional athletes. 

Daniel Moore, associate professor of muscle physiology, studies the influence of exercise and nutrition on skeletal muscle remodeling and protein metabolism, while Jenna Gillen, assistant professor of exercise physiology, conducts research into how exercise and nutrition can alter carbohydrate and fat metabolism in humans. 

Exercise interventions and wet labs

“We have so many great spaces now available to do in person research, including an exercise training suite for exercise interventions or training studies and an expanded wet lab that lets us look, on a cellular and molecular level, at how exercise – on its own or in combination with nutrition – influences aspects of metabolic health and physiology,” says Gillen.

A new, more spacious metabolic kitchen is also now available for careful preparation of diets and nutrition interventions for study participants, while blood samples and muscle biopsies are collected for analysis in the procedures room.

“With over 20 research labs housed under KPE, our experts are able to do cutting-edge research in various areas related to physical activity, health and their interactions,” says Professor Tim Welsh. Theinterim associate dean of research at KPE, Welsh is also head of the Action and Attention lab and studies the cognitive and neural mechanisms behind goal-directed actions of people from average and special populations. 

“This tour offered a snapshot of some of the important and far-reaching work that gets done.”

(Article by Jelena Damjanovic)

Read more about U of T’s most recent lab funding to modernize our high containment facility here.

Share this article: