Thought-Controlled Machines May Be One Step Closer

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 12, 2005

Scientists have made a brain discovery that could help lead to thought- controlled machines. Recent experiments have shown that a little- understood part of the brain that we use to process information about objects also plays a role when we move a hand or other limb.

Researchers made the key discovery when they studied the brain activity of several patients with electrodes surgically implanted in their brains.

The scientists found that an area of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, located near our temples, processes spatial information—information related to movements that we are about to make.

The study could aid the development of prosthetics that are brain-controlled. One application might be a brain-machine interface that helps paralyzed people to move and communicate simply by thinking.

"It had been thought that this area [of the brain] was specialized for object processing [determining what an object is] and did not contribute to spatial processing at all," said Daniel Rizzuto, a postdoctoral neuroscience scholar at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

"This result opens up the possibility of using these spatial signals to control a neural prosthetic device, which will eventually help paralyzed people to move again."

Rizzuto led the study, which was reported last month in the online edition of the research journal Nature Neuroscience.

Planting Electrodes

In the future, neural prosthetic devices could allow paralyzed patients to move a computer cursor or a robotic arm using just their thoughts.

To identify the brain areas that could best control such movements, researchers have usually focused on the areas of the brain directly responsible for the movement of body parts, not the planning stages of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex.

This brain region is thought to control goal-directed behavior. It selects useful sensory information and integrates it with our "goals" to direct our behavior.

To do so, it follows complex rules that helps us to act appropriately in various situations, Rizzuto explained. "For example, this area [of the brain] helps us to know not to pick up a ringing phone in someone else's house."

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