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Robot arm improves performance of brain-controlled device

trol that motion. For example, if one reaches out to grab a coffee mug, sensory neurons in the arm and hand send information back to the brain about where one's limbs are positioned and moving. Proprioception tells a person where their arm is positioned, even if their eyes are closed.

But in patients with conditions where sensory neurons die out, executing basic motor tasks such as buttoning a shirt or even walking becomes exceptionally difficult. Paraplegic subjects in the early clinical trials of brain-machine interfaces faced similar difficulty in attempting to move a computer cursor or robot arm using only visual cues. Those troubles helped researchers realize the importance of proprioception feedback, Hatsopoulos said.

"In the early days when we were doing this, we didn't even consider sensory feedback as an important component of the system," Hatsopoulos said. "We really thought it was just one-way: signals were coming from the brain, and then out to control the limb. It's only more recently that the community has really realized that there is this loop with feedback coming back."

Reflecting this loop, the researchers on the new study also observed changes in the brain activity recorded from the monkeys when sensory feedback was added to the set-up. With proprioception feedback, the information in the cell firing patterns of the primary motor cortex contained more information than in trials with only visual feedback, Hatsopoulos said, reflecting an improved signal-to-noise ratio.

The improvement seen from adding proprioception feedback may inform the next generation of brain-machine interface devices, Hatsopoulos said. Already, scientists are developing different types of "wearable robots" to augment a person's natural abilities. Combining a decoder of cortical activity with a robotic exoskeleton for the arm or hand can serve a dual purpose: allowing a paralyzed subject to move the limb, while also providing sensory feedback

Contact: Robert Mitchum
University of Chicago Medical Center

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