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Paving the way for thought-controlled prostheses

Understanding how the brain processes new skills and actions can help to improve learning and aid research into neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's disease . An EU-funded project has collected new data on the development of neural mechanisms of action learning and habit formation and addiction through the manipulation of the brain’s molecular networks. This could lead to breakthroughs in thought-controlled prostheses.

Some actions undertaken by living things are innate or pre-wired, such as swallowing, breathing and even grooming. Others are learned throughout life through trial and error. The EU-funded Neural mechanisms of action learning in mouse models (Neuroaction) project studied the neurological changes (changes in the brain, spinal cord and nervous system) which take place when actions are learned through the reaction to stimuli, facts and events.

The project’s findings give hope to sufferers of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and Huntington's disease and could provide those who have suffered spinal cord injuries, amputations and other disabilities the possibility of regaining mobility through the use of thought-controlled prostheses.

The Neuroaction team sought answers on how the brain initiates and generates diverse actions; how it improves the accuracy and speed of actions through trial and error; and how the brain learns that particular actions lead to particular outcomes and goals, and how this contributes to forming habits. Humans learn initially in a goal-directed manner and then slowly it becomes a habit – an example of this could be driving your car home from work.

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