Opening the door to the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices to help people with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other impairments, neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Portugal have demonstrated that the brain is more flexible and trainable than previously thought.
Their new study, published March 4 in the advanced online publication of the journal Nature, shows that through a process called plasticity, parts of the brain can be trained to do something they normally do not do. The same brain circuits employed in the learning of motor skills, such as riding a bike or driving a car, can be used to master purely mental tasks, even arbitrary ones.
Over the past decade, tapping into brain waves to control disembodied objects has moved out of the realm of parlor tricks and parapsychology and into the emerging field of neuroprosthetics. This new study advances work by researchers who have been studying the brain circuits used in natural movement in order to mimic them for the development of prosthetic devices.
“What we hope is that our new insights into the brain’s wiring will lead to a wider range of better prostheses that feel as close to natural as possible,” said Jose Carmena, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering, cognitive science and neuroscience. “They suggest that learning to control a BMI (brain-machine interface), which is inherently unnatural, may feel completely normal to a person, because this learning is using the brain’s existing built-in circuits for natural motor control.”
Carmena and co-lead author Aaron Koralek, a UC Berkeley graduate student in Carmena’s lab, collaborated on this study with Rui Costa, co-principal investigator of the study and principal investigator at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Program, and co-lead author Xin Jin, a post-doctoral fellow in Costa’s lab.
Previous studies have failed to rule out the role of physical movement when learning to use a prosthetic device.
CONTINUED at Science Daily.