March 21, 2011

Fascinating report on how our brains could be reprogrammed to remedy Parkinson's and other motor difficulties

A pal in my Parkinson's support group alerted me to a fascinating interview conducted last week by Diane Rehm's on her National Public Radio show with a neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis, who heads Duke University's Center for Neuroengineering. Dr. Nicolelis has, NPR says, "uncovered a new and controversial method for capturing brain function. It is paving the way for a cure for Parkinson’s disease, new ways of treating paralysis, and using brain waves to control everything from transportation to manufacturing."

He has just published a book,  Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives, which is what prompted the interview. In the research being done at Duke, brain signals are coded and recorded on a computer and are then transmitted to operate robotic devices (my layman's take on the study).  So far the research has involved mice and rhesus monkeys.  But human trials may start as early as next year.

The initial focus is on helping people with Parkinson’s movement disorders but the researchers also see lots of potential in other arenas, such as the possibility of creating a prosthetic body suit that a quadriplegic could wear and, using just his own thoughts, get to walk.

The Duke researchers knew from earlier neuroscientific studies that when before a body movement occurs,  there is a half-second or so window in the brain where it stores the information needed to initiate that movement. Here's how Dr. Nicolelis explains the Duke research:

"The brain is about the future. It plans the future of our motion and during that window, half a second or so, we discovered in the last 10 years that we could record this electrical signals that encode a motor behavior, decode this message, translate this message into digital commands and send these digital commands to a robotic arm, a robotic leg, virtual body or a computation or two so that that subject, a monkey in this case, could control just by thinking the movements of these devices, these artificial devices. So basically, the monkey could enact its voluntary motor will just by thinking."

Here's a video clip of a monkey on a tread mill sending signals to  a walking robot:

But here's the one that is the most intriguing.  It shows Aurora, the rhesus monkey, using a control stick to move a cursor to get a fruit juice reward while her mind/machine coding simultaneously moves a robotic arm in another room, and THEN, with the control stick removed, Aurora just thinks about moving the cursor and the robotic arm goes through the motions:

Aurora performing the task during hand control. from Ilsa Brink on Vimeo.

Aurora performing the task during brain control. from Ilsa Brink on Vimeo.

Here's the transcript of the interview:

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