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Week of November 8, 2010

Research

Breakthrough: Scientists harness the power of electricity in the brain


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 the 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 robotic exoskeleton controlled by a patient’s thoughts to move that patient’s limb, says 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 brain waves while somebody is moving around,” says 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 parts of the brain 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 impulses occur, they can use that geographic information for many different applications. Previously, scientists could only measure electrical brain activity on nonmoving patients.

Ferris, who also has an appointment in biomedical engineering, says 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 Computational Neuroscience 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 says.

 

STAFF SPOTLIGHT

Daniella Borum, program adviser, University Unions Arts & Programs, on the importance of her job: “Most of the programs on campus are student-driven and it is my responsibility to ensure students have access to the resources they need to have successful events.”

EVENTS

“Omaha Beach to the River Elbe: A Son Retraces His Father’s WWII Footsteps 66 Years Later,” Joe DeMatio, 7-8:30 p.m. Nov. 16, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery.

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