Dr Sarah Astill

BSc, PhD 2004, Leeds, ULTA-2,
School of Biomedical Sciences

Background: Bsc (Hons) Sport Science & Physiology (1997-2000; University of Leeds), PhD (2000-2004; University of Leeds). Postdoctoral research at University of Leeds (2004-2006) and University Of Southampton (2006-2008) Lecturer in Motor Control (2008-present), Director for Student Education (Sport and exercise Sciences (2014-present) .

Contact: Miall 5.21, +44(0) 113 34 37267, email address for  

Research Interests

Neuromotor Learning in Children and Adults with Motor Impairments

Research in this lab uses both motion analysis (kinematics) and surface electromyography (sEMG) to examine how arm and hand movements are controlled.  The overarching aim of this work is to use upper limb movements as a window into the human movement system in order to explore mechanisms of movement dysfunction, and to build an evidence base for the development of new approaches for restoration of upper limb function in a variety of clinical populations (e.g. individuals with hemi/tetraplegia, neurodevelopmental disorders).  More recently, we have have been using non-invasive brain stimulation to further explore arm and hand control, and how this can be best combined with movement practice to maximise learning adn functional capacity.   Examples of this work are outlined below.

Arm and hand control in Individuals with Incomplete Cervical Spinal Cord Injury (icSCI)    

In collaboration with Dr Ronaldo Ichiyama (FBS), Dr Rachel Coats (FMH), Dr Ray Holt (Mech Eng) Ms Laura Britten (FBS) and Mr Will Shaw (FBS)

Research in our lab has been examining the control of reaching and grasping movements of individuals with an incomplete cervical spinal cord injury (cSCI).  More specifically, we have been documenting the control deficits observed during one and two handed reaching and grasping tasks using sEMG and kinematic analysis.  Our data show bimanual movements take longer to complete and require more visual guidance. Furthermore, a long low velocity phase, combined with peak EMG activity of the upper arm and forearm muscles prior to object pick up, points to difficulties with generating appropriate forces to terminate limb motion and grip the object.  Interestingly, despite a cSCI there were no discernible differences between the two limbs when moving, and this could suggest that a rehabilitation strategy that takes advantage of the bilateral organisation of the CNS could be of benefit.

Our current work is now focusing on reactive and/or predictive grip force control deficits in people with cSCI.  It is feasible that due to the unique deficits of a cSCI, in that efferent and afferent information is distorted after injury, both predictive and reactive mechanisms could be impaired.  Furthermore, our data to date show that for some people with a cSCI moving bimanually decreases the difficulties observed when moving unimanually suggesting a movement strategy whereby the movement of one limb could benefit from activity in the other. Given this it may be that the control deficits during bimanual grip to lift tasks are different to those seen during unimanual task and that a bimanual movement condition facilitates grip force production and control.   

Finally, moving forward this body of work will investigate how best to non-invasive brain stimulation e.g. bihemispheric tDCS with, peripheral stimulation and physical therapy to optimise arm and hand function after cSCI.

 Upper limb motor control in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder 

Children with movement difficulties exhibit eye hand coordination difficulties that make tasks like reaching and grasping and catching a ball very difficult.  Using kinematic analysis we have been exploring how children with DCD control their limbs during intercetpive actions such as two handed catching.  This work has showed that these children exhibit very rigid coupling of the limbs, and struggle to refine their movement strategy with practice, resulting in a movement pattern that cannot cope with demands of a very dynamic task like catching. 

Following this, work funded by Action Medical Research, investigated if children with Developmental Coordination Disorder can benefit from a bimodal stimuli to plan and organise upper limb movements.  Our data supports our previous work that shows children with DCD have longer, slower, movement times and finger/hand paths.  However, it also shows that when children with DCD react to a bimodal stimuli they can reduce their reaction times to a speed similar to children who are typically developing and of the same age- this is particularly evident in situation when they are asked to make a movement to one target but have a choice of many.  This has implications for both rehabilitation and product design, as it seems children with DCD may benefit from objects/task that permit the use of multisensory information. 

The Role of Physical Activity and Exercise in Maintaining Motor function

This final area of research concerns the role that physical activity has in maintaining motor function in either old age or after a neurological injury.  In the lab we are examining how acute bursts of exercise affect novel skill and word learning, and which neuropysiological mechanisms (e.g. changes in BDNF levels) underpin these changes.  In the near future we hope to look at if the type of exercise (e.g. continuous vs Interval) alters these levels of neurotophins and how it effects brain plasticity and motor skill learning (TMS).  We hope to then use this basic science to help inform exercise paradigms for people with movement difficulties resulting from a neurophysiological dysfunction (e.g. SCI, stroke, TBI).    

Furthermore, in a collaboration with Yorkshire Dance and Leeds Public Health, I am PI on a project that has been comissioned to examine the effect that a 10 week dance intervention has on physical activity patterns, mobility and balance in community dwelling older adults.  Data so far shows that increases in physical activity patterns, and mobility and balance (i.e. a decreased TUG score) are evident after participation. 


Faculty Research and Innovation

Studentship information

Undergraduate project topics:

  • Physical activity patterns and choices in children and adults
  • The effect of acute exercise bursts on novel word and motor learning
  • Focus of attention and Motor Learning

Postgraduate studentship areas:

  • Motor skill control/learning in children and adults with Movement Difficulties
  • Upper limb and grasp function in individuals with Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
  • Exercise, brain plasticity and motor skill learning

See also:

Modules managed

SPSC2131 - Skill Acquisition and Motor Learning
SPSC2309 - Skill Acquisition, Motor Learning and Rehabilitation
SPSC5235M - The Sport and Exercise Medicine Practitioner II

Modules taught

SPSC1031 - Motor Control: Foundations of Control and Learning
SPSC1225 - Physical Activity Across the Lifespan
SPSC2309 - Skill Acquisition, Motor Learning and Rehabilitation
SPSC2309/2131 - Skill Acq and Motor Learning
SPSC3061 - Research Project in Sport and Exercise Science II
SPSC3125 - Motor Control and Neurorehabilitation
SPSC5382 - Extended Research Project

Academic roles

UG Programme Leader


Member of Faculty Taught Student Education Committee (Director of Student Education: School of Biomedical Sciences)
Member of Undergraduate School Taught Student Education Committee (Director of Student Education: Sports and Exercise Science)

Centre membership: Neuroscience Research at Leeds (NeuR@L)

Group Leader Dr Sarah Astill  (Lecturer)

Neuromotor Learning in Children and Adults with Motor Impairments 


Christine Addington (Primary supervisor) 60% FTE
Antonio Capozio (Primary supervisor) 60% FTE
William Shaw (Primary supervisor) 70% FTE
Mayan Omair (Co-supervisor) 30% FTE
Thomas Richards (Co-supervisor) 30% FTE
Piyanee Sriya (Co-supervisor) 30% FTE

Britten L, Addington C, Astill S Dancing in time: Feasibility and acceptability of a contemporary dance programme to modify risk factors for falling in community dwelling older adults BMC Geriatrics 17, 2017
View abstract

Britten L, Coats R, Ichiyama R, Raza W, Jamil F, Astill S Bimanual reach to grasp movements after cervical spinal cord injury PLoS ONE 12, 2017
View abstract

Read DJ, Hill AP, Jowett GE, Astill SL The relationship between perfectionistic self-presentation and reactions to impairment and disability following spinal cord injury. Journal of health psychology 1359105316674268-, 2016
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Britten L, Shire K, Coats RO, Astill SL The effect of standing desks on manual control in children and young adults Gait and Posture 48 42-46, 2016
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Coats RO, Fath AJ, Astill SL, Wann JP Eye and hand movement strategies in older adults during a complex reaching task Experimental Brain Research 234 533-547, 2016
View abstract

Coats ROA, Britten L, Utley A, Astill SL Multisensory integration in children with Developmental Coordination Disorder Human Movement Science 43 15-22, 2015
View abstract

Coats R, Fath A, Astill S, Wann J Eye-hand coordination strategies in older adults. Journal of vision 15 1152-, 2015
View abstract

Marsh BC, Astill SL, Utley A, Ichiyama RM Movement rehabilitation after spinal cord injuries: emerging concepts and future directions. Brain Res Bull 84 327-336, 2011
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Warner MB, Novellino A, Stokes M, Astill S, Maccione A Reliability of kinematic parameters during unilateral upper limb reaching tasks using a portable motion tracking system. J Med Eng Technol 34 200-208, 2010
View abstract

Utley A, Nasr M, Astill S The use of sound during exercise to assist development for children with and without movement difficulties DISABIL REHABIL 32 1495-1500, 2010

Astill S, Utley A Coupling of the reach and grasp phase during catching in children with developmental coordination disorder J MOTOR BEHAV 40 315-323, 2008

Utley A, Astill S Motor Control, Learning and Development, 2008

Utley A, Astill SL Developmental sequences of two-handed catching: how do children with and without developmental coordination disorder differ? Physiother Theory Pract 23 65-82, 2007
View abstract

Astill S Can children with developmental coordination disorder adapt to task constraints when catching two-handed? DISABIL REHABIL 29 57-67, 2007

Astill S, Utley A Two-handed catching in children with developmental coordination disorder MOTOR CONTROL 10 109-124, 2006

Astill SL Control and coordination of two-handed catching in children with developmental coordination disorder., 2004

Richards T, Sriya P, Astill S, Chakrabarty S Shared neural input between muscles activated during shoulder abduction and adduction