Stanford researchers investigate how neurons control muscle movement

While studying the brains of people with paralysis, researchers at Stanford University have discovered that groups of neurons work together and fire in complex rhythms to send movement signals to muscles.

“We hope to apply these findings to create prosthetic devices, such as robotic arms, that better understand and respond to a person’s thoughts,” Jaimie Henderson, MD, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, said in a press release.

A paper describing the study was recently published 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, shared senior authorship of the paper, according to the press release.

Henderson, Shenoy and colleagues recorded motor cortical brain activity of two research participants with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the degenerative neurological condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease that damages neurons and causes patients to lose control over their muscles.

The participants were a 51-year-old woman who retained some movement in her fingers and wrists and a 54-year-old man who could still move one of his index fingers slightly. The researchers implanted electrode arrays into the motor cortexes of the patients’ brains and recorded electrical brain activity while the participants moved or tried to move their fingers and wrists, which were equipped with sensors to record physical movement. This type of mapping typically only takes place during brain surgery.

The researchers plan to use the data from the trial to improve the algorithms that translate neural activity in the form of electrical impulses into control signals that can guide a robotic arm or a computer cursor, according to the release.

Reference: Henderson J, et al. eLife. 2015; doi:10.7554/eLife.07436

Disclosure: The researchers report the study was funded by the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neuroscience, Stanford BioX/NeuroVentures, the Stanford Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the Garlick Foundation, the Reeve Foundation, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (grants R01DC009899, N01HD53403 and N01HD10018), the Department of Veterans Affairs and the MGH-Deane Institute for Integrated Research on Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke.

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