Brain-computer interfaces as new brain output pathways.

TitleBrain-computer interfaces as new brain output pathways.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsWolpaw, J
JournalThe Journal of physiology
Date Published03/2007
KeywordsUser-Computer Interface

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) can provide non-muscular communication and control for people with severe motor disabilities. Current BCIs use a variety of invasive and non-invasive methods to record brain signals and a variety of signal processing methods. Whatever the recording and processing methods used, BCI performance (e.g. the ability of a BCI to control movement of a computer cursor) is highly variable and, by the standards applied to neuromuscular control, could be described as ataxic. In an effort to understand this imperfection, this paper discusses the relevance of two principles that underlie the brain's normal motor outputs. The first principle is that motor outputs are normally produced by the combined activity of many CNS areas, from the cortex to the spinal cord. Together, these areas produce appropriate control of the spinal motoneurons that activate muscles. The second principle is that the acquisition and life-long preservation of motor skills depends on continual adaptive plasticity throughout the CNS. This plasticity optimizes the control of spinal motoneurons. In the light of these two principles, a BCI may be viewed as a system that changes the outcome of CNS activity from control of spinal motoneurons to, instead, control of the cortical (or other) area whose signals are used by the BCI to determine the user's intent. In essence, a BCI attempts to assign to cortical neurons the role normally performed by spinal motoneurons. Thus, a BCI requires that the many CNS areas involved in producing normal motor actions change their roles so as to optimize the control of cortical neurons rather than spinal motoneurons. The disconcerting variability of BCI performance may stem in large part from the challenge presented by the need for this unnatural adaptation. This difficulty might be reduced, and BCI development might thereby benefit, by adopting a 'goal-selection' rather than a 'process- control' strategy. In 'process control', a BCI manages all the intricate high-speed interactions involved in movement. In 'goal selection', by contrast, the BCI simply communicates the user's goal to software that handles the high-speed interactions needed to achieve the goal. Not only is 'goal selection' less demanding, but also, by delegating lower-level aspects of motor control to another structure (rather than requiring that the cortex do everything), it more closely resembles the distributed operation characteristic of normal motor control.


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