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We are active in three NCAN Research Projects. Each of these three projects involves clinical, scientific, and technical activities. You can learn more about each of them by clicking on them.
We have developed technology and protocols for operant conditioning of spinal-level reflexes. We have shown that this conditioning changes spinal cord neurons and synapses anatomically and physiologically. Furthermore, we have shown that these protocols can be used in both animals and humans to improve behaviors such as locomotion that have been impaired by spinal cord injury or peripheral nerve injury. By targeting specific neuronal pathways, these operant conditioning protocols can address each individual’s particular deficits. They can thereby complement standard therapies for spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular disorders and enhance the restoration of important motor functions such as locomotion. Thus, they provide a unique and important new approach to neurorehabilitation.
The overall goals of this NCAN Research Project are to increase the therapeutic potential of operant conditioning protocols and to enable their widespread clinical dissemination. In accord with these goals, the first specific aim is to develop new conditioning protocols that can modify other CNS pathways and can target modifications to specific phases of dynamic behaviors such as locomotion; and the second aim is to develop a robust easy-to- use operant conditioning system suitable for widespread use by clinicians and scientists (and, with future development, for independent home use by patients). Part of the first aim and all of the second aim are in close collaboration with Dr. Aiko Thompson’s NIH-funded clinical research group at Helen Hayes Hospital/Columbia University.
Together, these aims will further develop operant conditioning of CNS pathways as a major new therapeutic technology and enable its widespread dissemination for both basic research and clinical applications that can significantly enhance the success of neurorehabilitation for spinal cord injuries, strokes, cerebral palsy, and other disorders.
Most BCI research has aimed at replacing or restoring communication and control for people who are severely paralyzed. In contrast, this project seeks to develop and validate BCI-based systems for improving important CNS functions that have been impaired by injury or disease. Success in this new area of BCI-based rehabilitation would greatly expand the population of people who could benefit from BCI technology.
Recent scientific advances have linked specific stages in the brain activity underlying important functions to specific features in the brain signals recorded by EEG. Other recent studies have shown that people can learn to regulate this brain activity through BCI-based operant conditioning of EEG features. From this work comes the central hypothesis of NCAN Research Project 2: that BCI-based operant conditioning (i.e., training) of properly selected EEG features can improve critical stages in the brain activity responsible for important functions such as motor control and emotion regulation. In accord with this hypothesis, the Specific Aims of NCAN Research Project 2 are: (1) To develop a BCI-based protocol for training EEG sensorimotor rhythms and to show that this protocol can improve motor control impaired due to stroke; (2) To develop a BCI-based protocol for training EEG features associated with abnormal emotional regulation and to show that this protocol can reduce formal measures of the craving that contributes to substance abuse.
We expect that this work will demonstrate that BCI-based training can improve important brain functions by improving key stages in the responsible brain activity, and can thereby help people with a wide variety of nervous system disorders. Its results should significantly enhance the clinical value of BCI technology, and should also increase understanding of the relationships between brain signals and behavior.
Improved understanding of the brain processes that govern normal or abnormal function, and improved ability to interact with these processes, require the ability to characterize and interact with the complex processes that produce behavior. However, current methods can typically characterize or interact with only simple measures of brain function, but not with the complex processes underlying behaviors. This limitation is a particularly severe problem for imaging technologies that have high spatial and/or temporal resolution, such as electrocorticography (ECoG). If ECoG can be combined with powerful new analytical methods that take full advantage of it, the combination should greatly enhance our understanding of CNS function and our ability to interact with and modify function. It could thereby lead to entirely new kinds of clinical applications. Our preliminary studies show that even relatively simple new methods can yield important new insights and can greatly improve functional mapping prior to brain surgery. Thus, they strongly support this expectation.
To realize this exciting prospect, the central goal of this NCAN Research Project is to develop and validate a coordinated sequence of analytical methods that can use ECoG signals (or other complex measures of brain activity) to characterize and interact with the brain processes responsible for important behaviors such as attention. We will do this by developing analytical algorithms and integrating them into a coordinated four-stage procedure (i.e., feature extraction, modeling the relationships among features, co-registration across individuals, and data reduction) that can detect and represent complex brain signal patterns, and by validating these new methods in scientific and clinical applications.
We expect that this project will produce analysis methods that take full advantage of brain signals that have high spatial and temporal resolution, in particular ECoG. These methods should provide the capacity to characterize, interact with, and/or modify the complex brain processes underlying normal or impaired behaviors. Thus, they should lead to new scientific understanding and to new ways to diagnose and treat a wide range of neurological disorders.
These three Research Projects involve a myriad of different approaches that can be grouped into five Research Areas based on how they use adaptive neurotechnologies to help people. You can learn more about these five Research Areas by clicking here.
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