Thought-Controlled Technology Improves Thanks to Motor Cortex Findings

Authored or posted by | Updated on | Published on December 28, 2015
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Brain Sensors Reading TechnologyA new understanding of how motor neurons fire should lead to a dramatic increase in performance of brain-machine interfaces.

by: Tim Requarth

(SimonsFoundation.org) A technology that would enable paralyzed patients to move prosthetic limbs merely by thought has taken a major step forward. A team led by investigators from the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain (SCGB) has found a way to apply new advances in the neuroscience of movement to dramatically improve the response and accuracy of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs).

These interfaces are devices that measure brain activity and, using sophisticated computer algorithms, translate the activity into actions in the real world. BMIs can be as simple as a cap outfitted with sensors that measure brainwaves — users who wore this head-cap could fly small drones around a college gymnasium with the power of their own thoughts. For some paralyzed patients, BMIs surgically implanted directly on the brain are better , because they are closer to the active neurons and receive clearer signals.

In 2012, a team led by Brown University researchers reported that they used an implant to enable a paralyzed woman to control a robotic arm and take a sip of coffee. And in a high-profile demonstration, a thought-controlled robotic ‘exoskeleton’ designed by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University enabled his paralyzed patient to deliver the opening kickoff at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

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But despite these impressive demonstrations, thought-controlled prosthetics are still in their infancy. They suffer in accuracy and speed, in part because scientists do not know enough about how the brain initiates and controls movements.

These barriers could soon fall thanks to a team led by SCGB investigator Krishna Shenoy and included SCGB colleagues Mark M. Churchland and John P. Cunningham, both of Columbia University. In an experiment with monkeys, the team surgically implanted small silicon computer chips, about the size of an adult pinkie nail, into the brain areas responsible for movement. These high-tech electrodes can pick up the individual activity of hundreds of neurons.

The monkeys then sat in a room, looking at a computer screen. Wires transmitted signals directly from their brains to the computer. On the screen was a grid of targets. When one of the targets randomly lit up, the monkey had to hover the cursor over it in exchange for a juice reward. But there was a twist — the monkey couldn’t use a computer mouse, or anything else, to control the cursor. Instead, in a matter of minutes, it learned to use the BMI to will the cursor to move just by thinking about it.

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Category: Brain & Thought Technology

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