Motor Control Lab (under construction...)

Lab director – James Thomas, PT, PhD

The Motor Control Lab, under the direction of Dr. James S. Thomas, has been funded by the NIH since 2004. The primary focus of the MCL is to better understand control of trunk movements and how various orthopedic or neurologic impairments alter that control. We use state of the art technology, equipment, facilities, and strong research methods to investigate back pain.


Technology - Equipment used in the lab and a list of recent research studies.

Publications - A composite list of publications, presentations, and press.

People - The Motor Control Lab brings together experts in the field of motor control science. Directed by Dr. James Thomas, P.T, Ph.D., our lab includes physical therapists, engineers, neuroscientists, and more!




Current projects

  • Motor Behavior Immersive TechnologyWe combine state-of-the-art virtual reality and immersive technology with a real-time motion data collection system to study motor behavior and develop pain interventions. We have linked Unity Engine with The Motion Monitor, and by using Vicon Tracker marker clusters we have developed the ability to create a virtual world that maps precisely to the real world. Because these events are so tightly synchronized, we can create almost any environment and assess the effects of target size, target location, and speed of movement on performance in both healthy and impaired populations. In collaboration with Steven Coombes, University of Florida Laboratory for Rehabilitation Neuroscience, we are integrating EEG technology with our virtual environment to better understand neurophysiological mechanisms underlying pain and altered motor behaviors. Most recently we have developed a way to use Vive Pucks to track motion in real time which will potentially allow our novel interventions to move quickly from bench to bedside.
  • Reaching Tasks - Reaching tasks such as ringing a doorbell, wiping a child's face or retrieving the morning paper are so common in our everyday experience that we rarely contemplate the complexity of such motor tasks or the variety of movement patterns that can be used to perform them. There are an infinite number of joint configurations that can be used to complete these reaching tasks and studying these movements is important for shedding light on central nervous system control. The standardized reaching protocol developed by Dr. Thomas has been shown to be effective in assessing alterations in motor control strategy in individuals with both neurologic and orthopedic impairments.
  • Core Muscle Activation Test - The Motor Control Lab's Core Muscle Activation Test (CMAT) device is custom designed and fabricated to apply precision pulls to the torso to study trunk stiffness and motor coordination. The CMAT system consists of 4 parker motors which are controlled by custom LabVIEW software developed by Peter Pidcoe, Ph.D., PT, at Virginia Commonwealth University's Engineering and Biomechanics Research Lab. This perturbation system is fully integrated with our Vicon data collection system to allow us to collect real-time force and motion data during these suddenly applied perturbations. In addition to assessing motion and force, we also utilize a 16-channel Delys Trigno wireless EMG system to measure muscle activity.
  • Core Muscle Reflex Testing - We have modified an activator device typically used in chiropractic practice to apply a short duration pulse to the erector spinae muscle which elicits the short latency reflex response. This has allowed us to develop a robust method to assess short latency reflexes of the erector spinae.
  • Trunk Fatigue - The Motor Control Lab's Fatigue Table is a custom made articulated table that allows for the simultaneous measurement of muscle activity, force production, and position change during trunk extension activities. The table consists of one 6-degree of freedom load cell, one single-degree of freedom load cell, four 600 lb holding capacity electromagnets, two electrogoniometers, a 16-channel Delsys Bagnoli EMG system, and a custom made LabView control system. Using the Fatigue Table, we have the ability to measure the strength and endurance of the trunk extensor muscles during a variety of protocols. Using the HTC Vive headset, we can also have participants complete trunk extension tasks while fully immersed in Virtual Reality.
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation - A Magstim stimulator is interconnected and integrated with a 16-channel Delys Trigno wireless EMG system using paried pulse TMS to determine the level of excitator or inhibitory response to various interventions.
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulaiton - Transcranial direct current stimulation (t-DCS) is a painless, non-invasive brain stimulation using direct current to stimulate specific areas of the brain. The lab performs t-DCS stimulation integrated with surface EMG of the trunk extensor muscles system to measure how this stimulus affects muscle activation in healthy controls and low back pain sufferers.
  • Lumbar Extension - We have modified a standard MED X Lumbar Machine by placing a load cell in series to measure both dynamic and static loading during trunk extension tasks. We have also placed a custom high gain potentiometer to precisely measure trunk angular displacement. This modified device is used to study the effects of load type on time-to-task failure as well as to quantify the effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on force production of the trunk extensors.

Past Projects

  • RELIEF Study (Researching the Effectiveness of Lumbar Interventions for Enhancing Function Study)

Funded proposals

  • VIGOR - Virtual Immersive Gaming to Optimize Recovery in Low Back Pain (or VIGOR) is a research study using an interactive game that may help reduce fear and increase spine motion in individuals with low back pain. The purpose of the study is to learn a new way to treat back pain. You are being asked to consider this study because you have chronic lower back pain and may have fear associated with movement.



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