Sunday, February 26, 2012

Brain implant simulates finger movements

We continue to learn more about how the brain functions, and how neurons work together to control our bodily functions. Scientists have made use of this knowledge by developing brain implants that read signals that cells send to each other, and translate that to robot movement. This is still work in progress, but we are getting closer to creating a mind-reading device that renders us able to control limbs with our brain. Chinese researchers have refined this system by showing that a brain implant is able to read out complex brain patterns involved with finger movement. A previous study by American scientists already showed we can retrieve thoughts from people's brain.

Experiments were performed on monkeys, that got the brain-computer device surgically implanted. The animals were tasked with something that required them to move their hand and fingers, which allowed the implant to read out the generated brain signals. It supports measurements from about 200 neurons. However, hand movement is controlled by hundreds of thousands of neurons in total.
Hand movement is much harder to replicate than arm movement, because of the fine motor skills associated with it. Because of its complexity, we also need complex devices to make the required measurements. Scientists are getting better at it; mimicking hand movements was previously impossible. Arm movement by merely using your brain has been demonstrated before in a human being, however.

Being able to read out the required brain signals for finger movement is a big step in the right direction. We are getting closer to fully understanding how limbs, hands and fingers are controlled by the brain. By creating robotics, paraplegics could be given the opportunity to move arms and legs again, and be able to function normally. We do need to refine our tools much more before that can happen. As said, we only read out a small part of the brain signals involved with movement, which is why we need more sophisticated implants.

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