Harnessing brain signals to control keyboards, robots or prosthetic devices is an active area of medical research. Now a rare peek at a human brain hooked up to a computer shows that the two can adapt to each other quickly, and possibly to the brain's benefit.
Researchers at the University of Washington looked at signals on the brain's surface while using imagined movements to control a cursor. The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that watching a cursor respond to one's thoughts prompts brain signals to become stronger than those generated in day-to-day life.
"Bodybuilders get muscles that are larger than normal by lifting weights," said lead author Kai Miller, a UW doctoral student in physics, neuroscience and medicine. "We get brain activity that's larger than normal by interacting with brain-computer interfaces. By using these interfaces, patients create super-active populations of brain cells."
The finding holds promise for rehabilitating patients after stroke or other neurological damage. It also suggests that a human brain could quickly become adept at manipulating an external device such as a computer interface or a prosthetic limb.
The team of computer scientists, physicists, physiologists and neurosurgeons studied eight patients awaiting epilepsy surgery at two Seattle hospitals. Patients had electrodes attached to the surface of their brains during the week leading up to the surgery and agreed to participate in research that would look at connecting brains to a computer.
Asking people to imagine doing a movement such as moving their arm is commonly done to produce a brain signal that can be used to control a device. But how that process works is poorly understood.
"A lot of the studies in this field are in non-human primates," Miller said. "But how do you ask an animal to imagine doing something? We don't even know that they can."
The researchers first r
|Contact: Hannah Hickey|
University of Washington