The cerebellum and brain-controlled interfaces

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Grasping an object involves a complex network of brain functions. First, visual cues are processed in specialised areas of the brain.

Then, other areas of the brain use these signals to control the hands to reach for and manipulate the desired object. New findings from researchers at the University of Missouri (MU) suggest that the cerebellum, a region of the brain that has changed very little over time, may play a critical role. Findings could lead to advancements in assistive technologies benefiting those with disabilities.

In the study, participants completed a series of ordinary reaching and grasping tasks involving coloured wooden blocks. Regions of the brain were monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Then, in a training session, participants were introduced to a robotic arm that performed the same reaching and grasping tasks when they pressed specific buttons.

Participants were told that the next day’s tasks would involve their controlling the robot remotely by video feed from within an MRI scanner. ‘We found evidence that the brain is very flexible and can be rapidly conditioned to associate new consequences with a variety of movements,’ said Scott Frey, professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Science and director of the Brain Imaging Center at MU.
‘Pressing a button is a very simple act that does not naturally result in grasping.

Nevertheless, after subjects learned that pressing one button would result in grasping objects with a robotic arm, this same movement resulted in a dramatically different pattern of brain activity than pressing an identical button known by them to have no effect on the robot’s behaviour. Localised activity within the cauliflower-shaped cerebellum, or ‘small brain’ sitting toward the back of the head, increased dramatically.

These findings suggest that we might look to the cerebellum when seeking potential targets for brain-controlled interfaces.’ The study was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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