Brains on Pong

Brains on Pong may revel how information is sent via electrodes

Published by Science Recorder | June 2013

by L. Clark Tate

Remember Pong? A computer game similar the one that had the world tapping “k” and “m” just facilitated a major breakthrough in neurobiological research, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Scientists have previously shown that the brain can send information via electrodes, instead of the standard spinal cord, to move objects such as robotic arms or computer cursors. What they haven’t been able to demonstrate, is how the brain learns to do so.

Now, thanks to a Pong-like game, they have come closer to cracking the code. Apparently, learning to play an video game using only your brain is much like learning to type, roller-skate, or tightrope walk. The same neurons are engaged and, in the beginning, the brain is actively engaged in the task. Over time, the shift from intention to execution requires less concentration and becomes progressively automatic. As this happens, the brain reorganizes.

Discovered by researchers at the University of Washington, this insight may greatly enhance the ability of science to provide tools for patients suffering from a stroke or paralysis.

The breakthrough occurred when a volunteer group of epileptics agreed to a little gaming. The subjects’ brains were already temporary implanted with electrodes, aimed at curing their seizures. They were asked to raise or lower a cursor drifting across a screen, touching an object above or below it, using only their mind. And it worked!

According to UW bioengineer Jeremiah Wander, by simply “imagining the movement of their hand or their tongue” raising the cursor or “resting” from the act they had imagined, the subjects made the cursor move. Or, in the words of the L.A. Times, “they modulated a narrow frequency of electrical impulses recorded across the primary motor cortex.”

Wander, who published a paper on the subject in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, states: “What’s really neat about it is, as people get better and better at this they tend to stop thinking about: ‘OK, I’m imagining moving my hand,’ or ‘I’m imagining resting.’ They just think about making the cursor move up and down.” He has tried the device himself and finds it “different from the way you interact in the world.”

What’s different about this study is that it relied on electrodes implanted into the brain itself. Many previous studies have employed scalp-mounted versions, which may not be able to detect and transmit the same level of information.

Replicating the full range of human motion using only the brain will involve further challenges. Fully replacing the spinal cord’s roll in translating electronic impulses into say, a ballet, will be quite a feat.

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