Nov. 19, 2010 Using a new brain-computer training approach, 14 volunteers learned in only six minutes how to move a screen cursor with their thoughts. Near-instant feedback helped the people quickly master some of their own brain responses.
The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2010, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held in San Diego.
Researchers have developed a speedier system that allows people to control a cursor with thought alone. Studies show that when people and animals are given feedback about their brain signals, they can gain some control over those signals. It's now possible to acquire that feedback faster than ever before -- in "real time" -- using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which registers blood flow in active brain regions.
"For most of us, most of the time, the ongoing activity of the brain is hidden and not under voluntary control," said lead author Anna Rose Childress, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "Brain feedback studies are changing this long-standing, one-way relationship."
Thought-only cursor control may provide more options for people with "locked-in" syndromes -- in which a person is aware but unable to communicate -- and individuals with brain injuries. Previous trials have also shown that people can learn to control pain using real-time fMRI, and researchers believe this same technique may be applied to other conditions. They theorize that if the structures that underlie these diseases can be controlled, the disease itself can be altered.
The study consisted of two parts: the computer training and the actual cursor control, both inside the MRI scanner. During training, computers learned to recognize two distinct brain patterns in the volunteers. In one, participants were asked to think about hitting a tennis ball. In the second, they imagined moving from one room to another. Each set of thoughts corresponded with activity in specific parts of their brains, which the computer analyzed. The volunteers were then instructed to repeat those same thought patterns and move a screen cursor linked to their brain activity. All the participants were able to move the cursor by alternating their thoughts, creating brain patterns that were quickly recognized by the computer.
Research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Biomedical Imagine and Bioengineering, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center.
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