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August 17, 2009

"Researchers Train Minds to Move Matter"

NY Times
July 21, 2009

Learning to move a computer cursor or robotic arm with nothing but thoughts can be no different from learning how to play tennis or ride a bicycle, according to a new study of how brains and machines interact.

The research, which was carried out in monkeys but is expected to apply to humans, involves a fundamental redesign of brain-machine experiments.

In previous studies, the computer interfaces that translate thoughts into movements are given a new set of instructions each day — akin to waking up each morning with a new arm that you have to figure out how to use all over again.

In the new experiments, monkeys learned how to move a computer cursor with their thoughts using just one set of instructions and an unusually small number of brain cells that deliver instructions for performing movements the same way each day.

“This is the first demonstration that the brain can form a motor memory to control a disembodied device in a way that mirrors how it controls its own body,” said Jose M. Carmena, an assistant professor of computer and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research.

The experiments were described Monday in the journal PloS Biology.

The results are very “dramatic and surprising,” said Eberhard E. Fetz, an expert in brain-machine-interface technology at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research. “It goes to show the brain is smarter than we thought.”

In this experiment, as in previous ones, electrodes are implanted directly into the brain to record activity from a population of 75 to 100 cells that help guide movement. As animals move a hand or arm, the activity pattern of those cells is recorded.

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