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Power of thought
13:18   09  November  00
Helen Phillips, New Orleans

A virtual reality system could help amputees learn to control prosthetic limbs by thought alone.

Dawn Taylor of Arizona State University in Tempe and colleagues have already used the system to train monkeys to "mentally" control a virtual ball.

"There are a lot of issues to resolve to make it practical for people," says Taylor. But the technology may one day allow a disabled person to control a prosthesis the same way anybody else does - just by thinking about it, she says.

Firing patterns

Scientists have struggled to work out how to "read" the firing pattern of cells commanding arms or legs. These patterns could be used to control an artificial limb.

For instance, accurately measuring what the arm is doing requires integrating signals from hundreds of neurons over a wide area of the brain's motor cortex.

But now Taylor's group may have found a way to control a limb by monitoring just a handful of cells, dramatically simplifying the process.

Floating balls

The researchers recorded signals from 22 cells in the monkey's motor cortex. They allowed these signals to drive the position of a target - a floating ball - in a 3D virtual reality display that the monkey watched.

The monkey's arm was restrained and it was trained to try to move the floating ball towards a target. Within just two weeks, the monkey had learned to control the ball by attempting to make movements, and so triggering the correct commands in the monitored cells.

Currently the system that monitors and interprets the signals is too large to be portable. But other laboratories are already testing simpler versions.

This research was presented at a conference in New Orleans, organised by the US-based Society for Neuroscience. New Scientist's full coverage of the conference is here:

    13:18   09  November  00

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