About a week ago now, I did a posting here about a monkey that had learned to play pong using only its brain, with no merely physical contrivance whatever. Well, the other day (which other day is of no consequence) I had a most pleasing conversation with someone called Paolo, who had been reading my blog, pleasing because it’s great to get feedback from such persons. And he referred in particular to this monkey plays pong posting.
He mentioned that, of course, one of the obvious applications of such wizardry is to help crippled people by equipping them with artificial limbs, which they control with pure brain power.
But Paolo then added a tweak to this story, by telling me that the mere process of enabling people to control a piece of machinery with their brains was actually getting them back in control of their own limbs, again. The reason being that if the brain gets no results from sending out body control messages, it in due course simply gives up and forgets how to do it. But if those same messages produce visible results with a piece of machinery, like a some kind of artificial arm which can, I don’t know, get food out of a cupboard or some such thing, then the brain’s enthusiasm for sending out these messages is rewarded and reinforced, in a positive feedback loop. And that can have the effect of the brain eventually getting control of its own body back again, because eventually the messages it sends out get through to the original limb, which has by now begun to recover. Usually, by the time such recovery has begun, the brain has lost interest. But by giving the relevant bit of the brain another reason to be doing it, in a way that’s very visible to the brain, the brain continues with the messages, and the messages eventually get through to their original destination.
So, installing a piece of useful brain-controlled machinery can have the effect not only of replacing immobilised limbs, but of actually bringing those same limbs back to life again.
Remarkable. Again, I’m very possibly telling you things you already know. But even if you did know this, I think you may agree that this is a remarkable development, worth celebrating.
Comments are rare at this blog. Paolo himself said he had thought about commenting along the lines stated above, but had not got around to it. But, if anyone can comment with a link to some detail concerning the above – Paolo himself maybe? – then that would be most welcome.
5 thoughts on “Artificial brain-controlled limbs as brain therapy to reactivate real limbs”
You are very welcome.
A really good book on this subject is The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He talks about the example you give but also the many other ways in which the brain modifies itself in response to its environment and its actions. This book was from 2008. He’s written another one called The Brain’s Way of Healing, which came out in 2015 but I haven’t read yet.
Hi Brian, here’s a link to an article about this: https://qz.com/757516/paraplegics-are-learning-to-walk-again-with-virtual-reality/
(I’m now following Paolo on Twitter.)