Scientists harness the power of electricity in the brain

November 18, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- A paralyzed patient may someday be able to "think" a foot into flexing or a leg into moving, using technology that harnesses the power of electricity in the brain, and scientists at University of Michigan School of Kinesiology are now one big step closer.

Researchers at the school and colleagues from the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego have developed technology that for the first time allows doctors and scientists to noninvasively isolate and measure electrical brain activity in moving people.

This technology is a key component of the kind of brain-computer interfaces that would allow a controlled by a patient's thoughts to move that patient's limb, said Daniel Ferris, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and author of a trio of papers detailing the research.

"Of course that is not going to happen soon but a step toward being able to do that is the ability to record while somebody is moving around," said Joe Gwin, first author on the papers and a graduate research fellow in the School of Kinesiology and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Using this technology, scientists can show which are activated and precisely when they are activated as subjects move in a natural environment. For example, when we walk signals originate in specific parts of the brain as messages travel from the brain to the muscles. When scientists understand where in the brain occur, they can use that geographic information for many different applications. Previously, scientists could only measure on non-moving patients.

Ferris likens isolating this brain electrical activity to putting a microphone in the middle of a symphony to discern only certain instruments in certain areas, say the oboe in the first chair, or the violin. As in an orchestra, there are many noisemakers in the brain producing excess electrical activity, or noise. Even the electrode itself produces noise when it moves relative to its source.

Researchers identified the brain activity they wanted to measure by attaching dozens of sensors to a subject who was either walking or running on a treadmill. They then used an MRI-based model of the head to figure out where in the brain that originated. In this way, scientists could localize the sources of the brain activity they were interested in and ignore the rest of the activity if it did not originate in the brain.

Ferris, who also has an appointment in biomedical engineering, said there are a couple reasons scientists can do this type of measuring now when it wasn't possible even a few years ago. Colleagues at the Swartz Center for devised the computational tools to do the measuring noninvasively in seated individuals, and without those tools the measuring would have been impossible. The two research groups then pushed farther and tried the measuring in walking and running subjects.

Also, electrodes have gotten more sensitive and have a better signal to noise ratio, he said.

The military is also interested in this type of technology, which could be used to optimize soldier performance by monitoring the of soldiers in the field to know when soldiers are performing at their peak. It could also help the military understand how information can be best presented and handled by soldiers.

In fact, any industry or organization interested in understanding how the brain and body interact could benefit from knowing how the brain functions during a given task.

"We could image the brains of patients with various different types of neurological disorders, and we could potentially target rehabilitation to subsets of patients that show similar symptoms," Gwin said. "If we could image the brain while going through some of this rehabilitation we could design the treatments better."

Explore further: Scientists can now 'see' how different parts of our brain communicate

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Neural basis of multitasking identified

September 1, 2015

What makes someone better at switching between different tasks? Looking for the mechanisms behind cognitive flexibility, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Germany's Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim ...

Deciphering the olfactory receptor code

August 31, 2015

In animals, numerous behaviors are governed by the olfactory perception of their surrounding world. Whether originating in the nose of a mammal or the antennas of an insect, perception results from the combined activation ...

New type of prion may cause, transmit neurodegeneration

August 31, 2015

Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a neurodegenerative disorder with similarities to Parkinson's disease, is caused by a newly discovered type of prion, akin to the misfolded proteins involved in incurable progressive brain diseases ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

that_guy
not rated yet Nov 18, 2011
They should figure out how to harness the electricity in the brain to power the limbs and other stuff.
Osiris1
not rated yet Nov 18, 2011
Hey, if electricity can be extracted from the brain, there now is an instant cure for hyperactivity......the brain drain! Just instead of ritalin, fit them with brain drains. Fit them with rechargeable batteries, swapping them out when charged for subsequent discharge into the electrical grid so the the maker of the brain drains can lower their power bills and make MORE brain drains. Then fit politically 'inconvenient' (ie..jobless folks whose jobs are now done in China with the products shipped back here at premium prices to satisfy 'free trade' loving republikans) with bigger brain drains to silence them into docility.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.