New research involving people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease sheds light on how individual neurons control muscle movement in humans — and could help in the development of better brain-controlled prosthetic devices.
Stanford University researchers studying how the brain controls movement in people with paralysis, related to their diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, have found that groups of neurons work together, firing in complex rhythms to signal muscles about when and where to move.
“We hope to apply these findings to create prosthetic devices, such as robotic arms, that better understand and respond to a person’s thoughts,” said Jaimie Henderson, MD, professor of neurosurgery.
A paper describing the study was published online June 23 in eLife. Henderson, who holds the John and Jene Blume-Robert and Ruth Halperin Professorship, and Krishna Shenoy, PhD, professor of electrical engineering and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, share senior authorship of the paper. The lead author is postdoctoral scholar Chethan Pandarinath, PhD.
The study builds on groundbreaking Stanford animal research that fundamentally has changed how scientists think about how motor cortical neurons work to control movements. “The earlier research with animals showed that many of the firing patterns that seem so confusing when we look at individual neurons become clear when we look at large groups of neurons together as a dynamical system,” Pandarinath said.
Previously, researchers had two theories about how neurons in the motor cortex might control movement: One was that these neurons fired in patterns that represent more abstract commands, such as “move your arm to the right,” and then neurons in different brain areas would translate those instructions to guide the muscle contractions that make the arm move; the other was that the motor cortex neurons would actually send directions to the arm muscles, telling them how to contract.
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