Study highlights brain’s flexibility, gives hope for natural-feeling neuroprosthetics
A Marie Curie Fellow, Dr Rui Costa, has co-published in Nature together with neuroscientists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Portugal a new study highlighting the brain 's plasticity (i.e. that parts of the brain can be trained to do things that they normally do not do).
Dr Costa and his collaborators showed that the brain circuit normally used for motor skills could be used for mental tasks, opening the door to the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices to help people with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other impairments.
'Although controlling a BMI (brain-machine interface) is unnatural, it may feel completely normal to a person, because this learning is using the brain's existing built-in circuits for natural motor control', explained one of the scientists involved in the project. In this study, rats were trained to accomplish an abstract task whilst using a specific brain circuit (which is normally used to twitch their whiskers) in order to get a food reward. The study was also set up in a way that demonstrated intentional, as opposed to habitual, behavior.
So far, the tests have been conducted on rats. However, this could have some major applications in the near future for a new generation of prosthesis which could restore mobility for people.
Read the Nature article: www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature10845.html