Researchers from the University’s School of Kinesiology and the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego have developed a new, noninvasive technology to measure and potentially harness electrical brain activity in moving people.
According to a press release issued by the University earlier this month, the technology allows scientists to identify when and where impulses occur in the brain by recording subjects’ movements in natural environments. In the past, electrical brain activity could only be measured in stationary subjects.
Rackham student Joseph Gwin, a graduate research assistant in the School of Kinesiology and the Department of Mechanical Engineering who worked on the project, wrote in an e-mail interview that he and his research colleagues have been able to examine brain function during physical steps.
“(Our) techniques enable us to study the neural control of movement in ways never before possible,” he wrote.
School of Kinesiology Associate Prof. Daniel Ferris, a primary researcher on the project, said the new technology’s ability to distinguish between various neural signals provides a unique way of looking at the brain.
He added that there is potential for applying the technology to a number of fields, including medicine.
“Patients with Parkinson’s disease often suffer from freezing gait, in which they physically lock up and can’t move anymore,” he explained. “Eventually we can see installing some type of deep brain stimulator to prevent freezing gait from happening.”
He added that the United States military has also shown interest in the research thanks to its potential practicality in the field.
“The military would like to be able to monitor brain activity of soldiers … such as their stress levels or fatigue levels,” Ferris said.
Gwin echoed Ferris’s statements, adding that there is the potential for the development of mobile brain-computer interfaces — pathways that could allow brain waves to control a computer or a physical device — using the technology.
“Conventionally, brain-computer interfaces have only been possible under stationary conditions,” he explained. “It may now be possible to develop interfaces that can be used in dynamic environments, such as while walking, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”
Researchers plan to continue improving this technology, which Ferris referred to as a “collaborative effort” between private companies and academic researchers.
Gwin wrote that the next step is to study brain activity during more complex movement tasks, such as walking over obstacles.
“It is not out of the realm of possibility that we could use brain waves to help control a device that could restore mobility to people with severe walking impairments,” he wrote.