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Robotic joystick reveals how brain controls movement

By training a group of human subjects to operate a robot-controlled joystick, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the slower the brain "learns" to control certain muscle movements, the more likely it is to remember the lesson over the long haul. The results, the investigators say, could alter rehabilitation approaches for people who have lost motor abilities to brain injuries like strokes.

In a report on the work in the May 23 issue of PLoS Biology, the researchers built on their observations that some parts of the brain learn - and forget - fast, while others learn more slowly and more lastingly. Both types of learning are critical.

"We believe our work is the first to show that motor learning involves different time scales and implies that the best strategy in rehabilitating a stroke patient should focus on slow learning because slow-learned motor skills will be maintained longer," says the report's senior author, Reza Shadmehr, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering in the Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences at Johns Hopkins.

Neuroscientists long have thought that two things are required for mastering such muscle control - time and error. Time refers to the need to "sleep on it," for the brain to somehow process and "remember" how to carefully control muscles. As for error, it's thought that mistakes help the brain and muscles fine-tune fine movements. The requirement for time and error explains why repetition of simple movements day after day is used routinely in rehabilitating partially paralyzed stroke patients and those with other brain injuries.

To test the need for time in mastering muscle control, the research team designed a simple and short task. Fourteen healthy human subjects were asked to hold onto a robot-controlled joystick and keep it from moving as the robot driver pushed repeatedly - in quick pulses - to one side. The joystick then pushed repeatedly in the opposite direction and again the subjects w
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Source:Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions


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