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Faculty and Research

Faculty Member

Ari Berkowitz

Ari Berkowitz

Presidential Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Biology; Director, Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program Richards Hall 111 & 103 405-325-3492 Ph.D., Neurosciences - Washington University, St. Louis, 1993


How does an animal's nervous system select and generate an appropriate behavior for each circumstance the animal faces? Our research addresses this general question through electrophysiological, neuroanatomical, and pharmacological experiments on an especially suitable model system:  the turtle spinal cord.  The turtle spinal cord can produce three distinct types of rhythmic scratching movements of a hindlimb, each targeted to a different region of the body surface, as well as hindlimb withdrawal movements and rhythmic hindlimb swimming movements.  The programs for generating these movements reside in the spinal cord:  the animal can produce these movements appropriately even when all input from the brain is removed.  Our research investigates how the spinal cord does this.  We have shown that the spinal cord uses a combination of shared and behaviorally specialized neurons to generate distinct limb movements. We aim to determine how these shared and specialized neurons act to produce each kind of movement.

Selected Publications:

Bannatyne, B. A., Hao, Z. Z., Dyer, G. M. C., Watanabe, M., Maxwell, D. J., and Berkowitz, A. (2020) Neurotransmitters and motoneuron contacts of multifunctional and behaviorally specialized turtle spinal cord interneurons. J. Neurosci. 40: 2680-2694, doi:

Nguyen, K. H., Scheurich, T. E., Gu, T., and Berkowitz, A. (2020) Spinal interneurons with dual axon projections to knee-extensor and hip-extensor motor pools. Frontier in Neural Circuits 14: 7, doi: 10.3389/fncir.2020.00007

Berkowitz, A. (2019) Expanding our horizons: central pattern generation in the context of complex activity sequences. J. Exp. Biol. 222: jeb192054. doi:10.1242/jeb.192054.

Berkowitz, A. (2018) You can observe a lot by watching: Hughlings Jackson’s underappreciated and prescient ideas about brain control of movement. The Neuroscientist 24: 448-455. (Cover article) doi: 10.1177/1073858418781819.

Johnson, K. P., Tran, S. M., Siegrist, E. A., Paidimarri, K. B., Elson, M. S., Berkowitz, A. (2017) Turtle flexion reflex motor patterns show windup, mediated partly by L-type calcium channels. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 11: 83, doi: 10.3389/fncir.2017.00083.

Hao, Z.-Z. and Berkowitz, A. (2017) Shared components of rhythm generation for locomotion and scratching exist prior to motoneurons. Frontiers in Neural Circuits 11: 54, doi: 10.3389/fncir.2017.00054. (recommended by F1000).

Berkowitz, A. (2016) Governing Behavior: How Nerve Cell Dictatorships and Democracies Control Everything We Do. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Elson, M. S. and Berkowitz, A. (2016) Flexion reflex can interrupt and reset the swimming rhythm. J. Neurosci. 36: 2819 –2826.

Berkowitz, A., Roberts, A., and Soffe, S. R. (2010) Roles for multifunctional and specialized spinal interneurons during motor pattern generation in tadpoles, zebrafish larvae, and turtles. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 4: 36.

Berkowitz, A. (2007) Spinal interneurons that are selectively activated during fictive flexion reflex. J. Neurosci. 27: 4634-4641.