Chapter 11. Motor Control and Plasticity

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By LAUREN BRADY When I was 18 I watched my father perform what would be his final surgery. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just returned to Colorado after surviving my freshman year of film school at New York University. One day my dad invited me to observe a vitrectomy. And while I hadn’t a clue what this would entail I immediately accepted, honored by the invitation and determined not to faint. My father’s 21 years as an ophthalmologist produced over 15,000 operations, a private practice spanning three offices, and very little vacation time. While I sensed from an early age that the long hours were taxing on him I never felt an absence. In fact, my childhood was picturesque: two loving parents, a rowdy little brother whom I pushed around until he was big enough to push back, family trips in the Jeep to the Rocky Mountains. He was the dad with the Handycam at every soccer game and school play. He worked as a surgeon, but he lived for his children. The morning of the vitrectomy we left extra early because of a limp in my dad’s right leg that had appeared a few months earlier and had gradually worsened. He suspected it was a pinched nerve and had been meaning to get it checked out. In the interim, he had started using a chair during surgery. Walking toward the hospital entrance we encountered a fellow doctor who greeted me with the familiarity of someone who’d been exposed to years of my father’s wallet photos. He asked how I liked Greenwich Village, whether I had directed any films yet and if I had tried a bialy. We walked and talked until I noticed at one point that my dad was no longer part of the conversation. Turning around I realized he was a half block back pushing himself up from the ground. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 19192 - Posted: 02.01.2014

By JAMES GORMAN The question of how moles move all that dirt when they tunnel just under the surface of lawns has never attracted the extensive study that other forms of locomotion — like the flight of birds and insects, or even the jet-propulsion of jellyfish — have. But scientists at the University of Massachusetts and Brown University have recently been asking exactly how, and how hard, moles dig. Yi-Fen Lin, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that moles seem to swim through the earth, and that the stroke they use allows them to pack a lot of power behind their shovel-like paws. Ms. Lin measured the power of hairy-tailed moles that she captured in Massachusetts and found they could exert a force up to 40 times their body weight. She also analyzed and presented X-ray videos taken of moles in a laboratory enclosure tunneling their way through a material chosen for its consistency and uniform particle size: cous cous. Angela M. Horner recorded the videos while studying the movement of Eastern moles in the lab of Thomas Roberts, a professor at Brown. One reason moles have not been studied as much as some other animals may be that they are not easy to capture or keep in a laboratory. “People said, ‘You won’t be able to catch them and you won’t be able to keep them alive,’ ” said Elizabeth R. Dumont, an evolutionary biologist who is Ms. Lin’s dissertation adviser. Ms. Lin solved the first problem by camping out in mole territory, on golf courses and farms, and marking their tunnels with sticks that she would watch for hours until movement indicated a mole on the move. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Miscellaneous
Link ID: 19179 - Posted: 01.29.2014

By Katherine Harmon Courage Unless you’ve eaten sannakji, the Korean specialty of semi-live octopus, you might never have had a squirming octopus arm in your mouth. But you’ve most likely had a very similar experience. In fact, you’re probably having one right now. Octopus arms might seem strange and mysterious, but they are remarkably similar to the human tongue. Known as muscular hydrostats, both of these appendages can easily bend, extend and change shape (remember that time you had to stretch out your tongue to lick that last bit of chocolate pudding from the bottom of the cup?). Researchers are hoping a new interdisciplinary project to look at movement in the octopus arm and the human tongue will shed light on how both of these complex structures are activated. This, in turn, could help scientists understand neurological diseases that affect speech, such as Parkinson’s. “The human tongue is a very different muscular system than the rest of the human body,” Khalil Iskarous, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California who is helping to lead the research, said in a prepared statement. “Our bodies are vertebrate mechanisms that operate by muscle working on bone to move. The tongue is in a different muscular family, much like an invertebrate. It’s entirely muscle—it’s muscle moving muscle.” Both move by compressing fluid in one section of a muscle, creating movement in another part. But we know little about exactly how that movement is initiated and so finely controlled. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 19117 - Posted: 01.11.2014

Just in time for all those New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, scientists have a better idea of how the body turns pain into gain. Exertion stimulates muscles to release a molecule that modifies fat cells, turning them into calorie-burning machines, a research team has found. Exercise works the muscles but affects cells throughout the body, even in the brain. An important player in this process is a protein called PGC-1α. In exercising muscles, it activates genes that ramp up energy use. But its impact extends beyond these tissues. The protein somehow indirectly prompts, for example, white fat—the energy-storing variety that pads our hips and stomachs—to switch on genes that are characteristic of brown fat, a form that burns calories. PGC-1α doesn’t travel outside muscle cells, so researchers aren’t sure how its influence spreads, however. By sifting through the secretions of PGC-1α-making muscle cells, Robert Gerszten of Harvard Medical School in Boston and colleagues have nabbed one molecule that might be doing the protein’s bidding: β-aminoisobutyric acid (BAIBA). They found that BAIBA induces white fat cells to become more like brown fat cells, altering their gene activity patterns. And it stimulates other cell types, stoking fat metabolism in the liver, the team also reveals today in Cell Metabolism. These effects may translate into a healthier metabolism. When mice lapped up water laced with the molecule, the rodents lost weight and were better at absorbing glucose. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Obesity; Aggression
Link ID: 19110 - Posted: 01.08.2014

Don’t worry about watching all those cat videos on the Internet. You’re not wasting time when you are at your computer—you’re honing your fine-motor skills. A study of people’s ability to translate training that involves clicking and twiddling a computer mouse reveals that the brain can apply that expertise to other fine-motor tasks requiring the hands. We know that computers are altering the way that people think. For example, using the Internet changes the way that you remember information. But what about use of the computer itself? You probably got to this story by using a computer mouse, for example, and that is a bizarre task compared with the activities that we’ve encountered in our evolutionary history. You made tiny movements of your hand in a horizontal plane to cause tiny movements of a cursor in a completely disconnected vertical plane. But with daily practice—the average computer user makes more than 1000 mouse clicks per day—you have become such an expert that you don’t even think about this amazing feat of dexterity. Scientists would love to know if that practice affects other aspects of your brain’s control of your body. The problem is finding people with no computer experience. So Konrad Kording, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in Illinois, and his former postdoc Kunlin Wei, now at Peking University in Beijing, turned to migrant Chinese workers. The country’s vast population covers the whole socioeconomic spectrum, from elite computer hackers to agricultural laborers whose lifestyles have changed little over the past century. The country’s economic boom is bringing people in waves from the countryside to cities in search of employment. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 19060 - Posted: 12.21.2013

by Ashley Yeager With a little help from implanted electrodes, Parkinson's patients make fewer driving errors, at least on a computer. When steering a simulator, patients with active brain stimulators averaged 3.8 driving errors, compared with 7.5 for healthy people and 11.4 for those with Parkinson's disease who did not have implants. The Parkinson’s patients’ driving skills were also more accurate when receiving deep brain stimulation than when taking levodopa, a common treatment for the disease, researchers report December 18 in Neurology. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 19054 - Posted: 12.19.2013

People with dementia who exercise improve their thinking abilities and everyday life, a body of medical research concludes. The Cochrane Collaboration carried out a systematic review of eight exercise trials involving more than 300 patients living at home or in care. Exercise did little for patients' moods, the research concluded. But it did help them carry out daily activities such as rising from a chair, and boosted their cognitive skills. Whether these benefits improve quality of life is still unclear, but the study authors say the findings are reason for optimism. Dementia affects some 800,000 people in the UK. And the number of people with the condition is steadily increasing because people are living longer. It is estimated that by 2021, the number of people with dementia in the UK will have increased to around one million. With no cure, ways to improve the lives of those living with the condition are vital. Researcher Dorothy Forbes, of the University of Alberta, and colleagues who carried out the Cochrane review, said: "Clearly, further research is needed to be able to develop best practice guidelines to enable healthcare providers to advise people with dementia living at home or in institutions. "We also need to understand what level and intensity of exercise is beneficial for someone with dementia." BBC © 2013

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 18999 - Posted: 12.05.2013

At the Society for Neuroscience meeting earlier this month in San Diego, California, Science sat down with Geoffrey Ling, deputy director of the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to discuss the agency’s plans for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a neuroscience research effort put forth by President Barack Obama earlier this year. So far, DARPA has released two calls for grant applications, with at least one more likely: The first, called SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies), asks researchers to develop novel, wireless devices, such as deep brain stimulators, that can cure neurological disorders such as posttraumatic stress (PTS), major depression, and chronic pain. The second, RAM (Restoring Active Memory), calls for a separate wireless device that repairs brain damage and restores memory loss. Below is an extended version of a Q&A that appears in the 29 November issue of Science. Q: Why did DARPA get involved in the BRAIN project? G.L.: It’s really focused on our injured warfighters, but it has a use for civilians who have stress disorders and civilians who also have memory disorders from dementia and the like. But at the end of the day, it is still meeting [President Obama’s] directive. Of all the things he could have chosen—global warming, alternative fuels—he chose this, so in my mind the neuroscience community should be as excited as all get-up. Q: Why does SUBNETS focus on deep brain stimulation (DBS)? G.L.: We’ve opened the possibility of using DBS but we haven’t exclusively said that. We’re challenging people to go after neuropsychiatric disorders like PTS [and] depression. We’re challenging the community to come up with something in 5 years that’s clinically feasible. DBS is an area that has really been traditionally underfunded, so we thought what the heck, let’s give it a go—in this new BRAIN Initiative the whole idea is to go after the things that there aren’t 400 R01 grants for—and let’s be bold, and boy, if it works, fabulous. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 18982 - Posted: 11.30.2013

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have used RNA interference (RNAi) technology to reveal dozens of genes which may represent new therapeutic targets for treating Parkinson’s disease. The findings also may be relevant to several diseases caused by damage to mitochondria, the biological power plants found in cells throughout the body. “We discovered a network of genes that may regulate the disposal of dysfunctional mitochondria, opening the door to new drug targets for Parkinson’s disease and other disorders,” said Richard Youle, Ph.D., an investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and a leader of the study. The findings were published online in Nature. Dr. Youle collaborated with researchers from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Mitochondria are tubular structures with rounded ends that use oxygen to convert many chemical fuels into adenosine triphosphate, the main energy source that powers cells. Multiple neurological disorders are linked to genes that help regulate the health of mitochondria, including Parkinson’s, and movement diseases such as Charcot-Marie Tooth Syndrome and the ataxias. Some cases of Parkinson’s disease have been linked to mutations in the gene that codes for parkin, a protein that normally roams inside cells, and tags damaged mitochondria as waste. The damaged mitochondria are then degraded by cells’ lysosomes, which serve as a biological trash disposal system. Known mutations in parkin prevent tagging, resulting in accumulation of unhealthy mitochondria in the body.

Keyword: Parkinsons; Aggression
Link ID: 18975 - Posted: 11.26.2013

by Erika Engelhaupt If you had to have a prosthetic hand, would you want it to look like a real hand? Or would you prefer a gleaming metallic number, something that doesn’t even try to look human? A new study looks at one of the issues that prosthetic designers and wearers face in making this decision: the creepy factor. People tend to get creeped out by robots or prosthetic devices that look almost, but not quite, human. So Ellen Poliakoff and colleagues at the University of Manchester in England had people rate the eeriness of various prosthetic hands. Forty-three volunteers looked at photographs of prosthetic and real hands. They rated both how humanlike (realistic) the hands were and how eerie they were, defined as “mysterious, strange, or unexpected as to send a chill up the spine.” Real human hands were rated both the most humanlike and the least eerie (a good thing for humans). Metal hands that were clearly mechanical were rated the least humanlike, but less eerie overall than prosthetic hands made to look like real hands, the team reports in the latest issue of Perception. The realistic prosthetics, like the rubber hand shown above, fell into what's known as the uncanny valley. That term, invented by roboticist Matsuhiro Mori in 1970, describes how robots become unnerving as they come to look more humanlike. The superrealistic Geminoid DK robot and the animated characters in the movie The Polar Express suffer from this problem. They look almost human, but not quite, and this mismatch between expectation and reality is one of the proposed explanations for the uncanny valley. In particular, if something looks like a human but doesn’t quite move like one, it’s often considered eerie. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013

Keyword: Robotics; Aggression
Link ID: 18966 - Posted: 11.25.2013

Helen Shen To researchers who study how living things move, the octopus is an eight-legged marvel, managing its array of undulating appendages by means of a relatively simple nervous system. Some studies have suggested that each of the octopus’s tentacles has a 'mind' of its own, without rigid central coordination by the animal’s brain1. Now neuroscientist Guy Levy and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem report that the animals can rotate their bodies independently of their direction of movement, reorienting them while continuing to crawl in a straight line. And, unlike species that use their limbs to move forward or sideways relative to their body's orientation, octopuses tend to slither around in all directions. The team presented its findings on 10 November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, California. The new description of octopus movement is “not how one would imagine that would happen, but it seems to give a lot of control to the animal", says Gal Haspel, a neuroscientist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Haspel studies worm locomotion, and he was also surprised by the researchers’ report that the octopus pushes itself with worm-like contractions of its tentacles. Different combinations flex together to produce movement in different directions. Levy, who began the research as part of a project to design and control flexible, octopus-like robots, says that the work could also help to uncover basic biological principles of locomotion. Levy’s team deconstructed octopus movement using a transparent tank rigged with a system of mirrors and video cameras, in which they tested nine adult common octopuses (Octopus vulgaris). © 2013 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Movement Disorders; Aggression
Link ID: 18936 - Posted: 11.16.2013

by Jessica Griggs, San Diego No practice required. Wouldn't it be great if you could get better at playing sport or hone your piano skills simply by thinking about it? A small pilot study suggests that it might be possible. In the last few years, brain training using computer games that provide neurofeedback – a real-time representation of your brain activity – has become a popular, if controversial, method of enhancing cognitive abilities such as spatial memory, planning and multitasking. It has even been used to help actors get into character. Most of the games aim to enhance activation in a single part of the brain. But motor skills are known to involve two main areas – the premotor cortex and the supplementary motor cortex. Both are involved when people make movements or imagine moving. Brain activity between these regions is known to be less synchronised in people who are poor at motor tasks than in those who excel at them. So to see if brain training could target both areas and improve motor performance, Sook-Lei Liew and her colleagues from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, recruited eight young adults. The researchers and asked the participants to watch a white circle on a screen while an fMRI machine scanned their brain. When the circle turned into a red triangle, the volunteers were told to move their fingers. This movement caused activation in their premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex, which in turn moved a bar on the screen. The higher the synchronisation of activity between the two brain areas, the higher the bar went. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Stroke
Link ID: 18928 - Posted: 11.14.2013

Helen Shen Long used to treat movement disorders, deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is rapidly emerging as an experimental therapy for neuropsychiatric conditions including depression, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder and even Alzheimer’s disease. But despite some encouraging results in patients, it remains largely unknown how the electrical pulses delivered by implants deep within the brain affect neural circuits and change behaviour. Now there is a prototype DBS device that could provide some answers, researchers reported on 10 November at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in San Diego, California. Called Harmoni, the device is the first DBS implant to monitor electrical and chemical responses in the brain while delivering electrical stimulation. “That’s new data that we haven’t really had access to in humans before,” says Cameron McIntyre, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who is not involved in the work. Researchers hope that the device will identify the electrical and chemical signals in the brain that correlate in real time with the presence and severity of symptoms, including the tremors experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease. This information could help to uncover where and how DBS exerts its therapeutic effects on the brain, and why it sometimes fails, says Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who is leading the project. The results come at a time of great excitement in the DBS field. Last month, the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a 5-year, US$70-million initiative to support development of the next generation of therapeutic brain-stimulating technologies. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group,

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 18922 - Posted: 11.13.2013

Sedentary adults may improve their memory as soon as six weeks after taking up aerobic exercise, a small brain imaging study suggests. Cardiovascular fitness and cognitive performance such as attention seem to improve after six months or more of aerobic exercise in previous aging studies. Now researchers in Texas have found signs of increased regional blood flow in the brain of 37 sedentary adults with an average age of 64 who were randomized to physical training or a control group who had the training after a waiting period. They found a higher resting cerebral blood flow in the brain's anterior cingulate region in the physical training group compared with controls. The anterior cingulate region is associated with better memory functions. The size of this brain region was also larger in another study of "successful cognitive agers" over the age of 80 compared to middle-aged or elderly controls. "A relatively rapid health benefit across brain, memory and fitness in sedentary adults soon after starting to exercise, some gains starting as early as six weeks, could motivate adults to start exercising regularly," the study's lead author, Sandra Bond Champman of the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas and her co-authors concluded in Monday's issue of the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. "The current findings shed new light on ways exercise promotes cognitive/brain health in aging." The participants all had a physical exam and screening for dementia, early cognitive impairment, depression and IQ before the study began. A noninvasive type of MRI was used to measure brain blood flow before, half way through the 6-week training sessions and at 12 weeks. © CBC 2013

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 18920 - Posted: 11.13.2013

Babies born to women who exercised during pregnancy have enhanced brain development compared with babies born to moms who didn’t exercise while they were pregnant, a new Canadian study suggests. The babies of 10 women who did as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week during pregnancy showed more advanced brain activity when they were tested at eight to 12 days old than the babies of eight women who did not exercise during pregnancy, reported University of Montreal researcher David Ellemberg and his colleagues at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego on Sunday. “We are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child's future,” Ellemberg said in a statement. The women in the study were randomly assigned to an exercise group or a sedentary group at the beginning of their second trimester. Those in the exercise group had to spend at least 20 minutes three times a week doing exercise intense enough to lead to at least a slight shortness of breath. After their babies were born, the researchers tested them by placing a cap of electrodes on the babies' heads and then playing novel sounds while they slept. They measured the electrical response of the babies' brains to see how well they could distinguish between different sounds. The researchers found that the babies in the exercise group produced signals associated with more mature brains. The researchers said they plan to test the children’s cognitive, motor and language development at age one to see if there are lasting effects. © CBC 2013

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 18916 - Posted: 11.12.2013

By PAM BELLUCK It is probably no accident that the pivotal object in Martin Cruz Smith’s newest detective thriller, “Tatiana,” is a notebook nobody can read. Early on, Mr. Smith worried that his novel, being published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, would be unreadable too — or wouldn’t be written at all. Author of the 1981 blockbuster “Gorky Park” and many acclaimed books since, Mr. Smith writes about people who uncover and keep secrets. But for 18 years, he has had a secret of his own. In 1995, he received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. But he kept it hidden, not only from the public, but from his publisher and editors. He concealed it, although for years, tremors and stiffness have kept him from taking detailed notes and sketching people, places and objects for his research — and even as he became unable to type the words he needed to finish his 2010 best seller “Three Stations.” “I didn’t want to be judged by that,” Mr. Smith, 71, explained recently in his light-filled Victorian home north of San Francisco. “Either I’m a good writer or I’m not. ‘He’s our pre-eminent Parkinson’s writer.’ Who needs that?” In talking about his Parkinson’s odyssey, including a relatively new but promising treatment, Mr. Smith is opening a window on the still incurable disorder affecting four million people worldwide, a disease that is becoming increasingly prevalent as baby boomers age. His experience reflects a common desire to conceal often-stigmatizing symptoms, like shaking, slowness, and rigidity. (He mostly didn’t mind his Parkinsonian hallucinations: a black cat in his lap, whirlwinds spiraling from computer keys, a butler, a British military officer in full regalia. “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant,” he said.) Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 18914 - Posted: 11.12.2013

by Ashley Yeager The compound that gives mold its musty smell can cause changes in fruit flies’ brains that mimic those of patients with Parkinson’s disease. Scientists do not know the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease, but studies have shown that exposure to human-made chemicals may be a risk factor for developing the movement disorder. Now researchers have found that the chemical 1-octen-3-ol, which mold naturally emits, kills flies’ brain cells that transmit dopamine, a compound involved in controlling movement. The mold molecule also reduces dopamine levels in the flies’ brains. In experiments with human cells, the mold chemical also blocked the cells from taking in dopamine, researchers report November 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results offer insight into cases of movement problems that doctors have associated with fungi exposure, the scientists say. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013

Keyword: Movement Disorders; Aggression
Link ID: 18911 - Posted: 11.12.2013

Sarah DeWeerdt Parts of the brain that process vision and control movements are poorly connected in children with autism, according to results presented Saturday at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. In addition to the social deficits that are a core feature of autism, children with the disorder often have clumsy movements. Studies have also found that people with autism have trouble imitating others. The new study uncovers patterns of brain activity suggesting all three of these deficits may be related. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure resting-state activation — brain activity that occurs while individuals are resting quietly in the scanner — in 45 children with autism and 45 controls. Parts of the brain that tend to activate and deactivate together during this procedure are said to be functionally connected. The researchers zeroed in on two sets of brain structures involved in motor activity. One of them, the ventral motor component, includes parts of the cortex, the thalamus and lobule 6 of the cerebellum. They also focused on three areas of the brain involved in visual processing. The most interesting is a region at the back of the brain responsible for complex interpretation of visual information. © Copyright 2013 Simons Foundation

Keyword: Autism; Aggression
Link ID: 18906 - Posted: 11.11.2013

Roughly a year ago, I found myself at an elegant dinner party filled with celebrities and the very wealthy. I am a young professor at a major research university, and my wife and I were invited to mingle and chat with donors to the institution. To any outside observer, my career was ascendant. Having worked intensely and passionately at science for my entire adult life, I had secured my dream job directing an independent neuroscience research laboratory. I was talking to a businessman who had family members affected by a serious medical condition. He turned to me and said: “You're a neuroscientist. What do you know about Parkinson's disease?” My gaze darted to catch the eyes of my wife, but she was involved in another conversation. I was on my own, and I paused to gather my thoughts before responding. Because I had a secret. It was a secret that I hadn't yet told any of my colleagues: I have Parkinson's. I am still at the beginning of my fascinating, frightening and ultimately life-affirming journey as a brain scientist with a disabling disease of the brain. Already it has given me a new perspective on my work, it has made me appreciate life and it has allowed me to see myself as someone who can make a difference in ways that I never expected. But it took a bit of time to get here. The first signs I remember the first time I noticed that something was wrong. Four years ago, I was filling out a mountain of order forms for new lab equipment. After a few pages, my hand became a quaking lump of flesh and bone, locked uselessly in a tense rigor. A few days later, I noticed my walk was changing: rather than swinging my arm at my side, I held it in front of me rigidly, even grabbing the bottom edge of my shirt. I also had an occasional twitch in the last two fingers of my hand. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 18896 - Posted: 11.08.2013

Most of us don’t think twice when we extend our arms to hug a friend or push a shopping cart—our limbs work together seamlessly to follow our mental commands. For researchers designing brain-controlled prosthetic limbs for people, however, this coordinated arm movement is a daunting technical challenge. A new study showing that monkeys can move two virtual limbs with only their brain activity is a major step toward achieving that goal, scientists say. The brain controls movement by sending electrical signals to our muscles through nerve cells. When limb-connecting nerve cells are damaged or a limb is amputated, the brain is still able to produce those motion-inducing signals, but the limb can't receive them or simply doesn’t exist. In recent years, scientists have worked to create devices called brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that can pick up these interrupted electrical signals and control the movements of a computer cursor or a real or virtual prosthetic. So far, the success of BMIs in humans has been largely limited to moving single body parts, such as a hand or an arm. Last year, for example, a woman paralyzed from the neck down for 10 years commanded a robotic arm to pick up and lift a piece of chocolate to her mouth just by thinking about it. But, "no device will ever work for people unless it restores bimanual behaviors,” says neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, senior author of the paper. "You need to use both arms and hands for the simplest tasks.” In 2011, Nicolelis made waves by announcing on The Daily Show that he is developing a robotic, thought-controlled "exoskeleton" that will allow paralyzed people to walk again. Further raising the stakes, he pledged that the robotic body suit will enable a paralyzed person to kick a soccer ball during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Brazil World Cup. (Nicolelis is Brazilian and his research is partly funded by the nation’s government.) © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Robotics
Link ID: 18888 - Posted: 11.07.2013