A study out of the University of California – Berkeley and Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Portugal have proven what many of us long suspected: the brain is a truly amazing instrument. A March 4th article in the journal Nature points to the brain’s incredible capacity to rewire itself. This capacity, known as plasticity, allows parts of the brain to learn how to do something that they wouldn’t do normally. There is potential, scientists say, that this flexibility could be used toward controlling prosthetic limbs or other devices to help people with disabilities. That’s right. You one day might be able to control that artificial arm with your mind.
Science Daily reports:
Over the past decade, tapping into brain waves to control disembodied objects has moved out of the realm of parlor tricks and parapsychology and into the emerging field of neuroprosthetics. This new study advances work by researchers who have been studying the brain circuits used in natural movement in order to mimic them for the development of prosthetic devices.
“What we hope is that our new insights into the brain’s wiring will lead to a wider range of better prostheses that feel as close to natural as possible,” said Jose Carmena, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering, cognitive science and neuroscience. “They suggest that learning to control a BMI (brain-machine interface), which is inherently unnatural, may feel completely normal to a person, because this learning is using the brain’s existing built-in circuits for natural motor control.”
The major breakthrough of this study was that it separated purely neural activity from physical movement. Most of the innovative robotic prostheses up to this point have relied on some measure of physical movement, say through moving one’s eyes or manipulating the muscles in one’s forearm. These new findings suggest that it may be possible to manipulate prosthetics solely with one’s mind, which would be a godsend for individuals with paralysis. Now, these technologies are still a long way off, but they are now also far from unthinkable. Ladies and gentlemen, science never fails to amaze.