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Prog Brain Res. 2011;192:83-102. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53355-5.00006-3.

Stimulus-driven changes in sensorimotor behavior and neuronal functional connectivity application to brain-machine interfaces and neurorehabilitation.

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Department of Physiology, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA.


Normal brain function requires constant adaptation as an organism interacts with the environment and learns to associate important sensory stimuli with appropriate motor actions. Neurological disorders may disrupt these learned associations, potentially requiring new functional pathways to be formed to replace the lost function. As a consequence, neural plasticity is a critical aspect of both normal brain function as well as the response to neurological injury. A brain-machine interface (BMI) represents a unique adaptive challenge to the nervous system. Efferent BMIs have been developed, which harness signals recorded from a tiny proportion of the motor cortex (M1) to effect control of an external device. There is also interest in the development of an afferent BMI that would supply information directly to the brain (e.g., the somatosensory cortex-S1) via electrical stimulation. If a bidirectional BMI that combined these interfaces were to be successful, new functional pathways would be necessary between the artificial inputs and outputs. Indeed, stimulation of S1 that is contingent upon the consequences of motor command signals recorded from M1 might form the basis for artificial Hebbian associations not unlike those driving learning in the normal brain. In this chapter, we review recent developments in both efferent and afferent BMIs, as well as experimental attempts to understand and mimic the Hebbian processes that give rise to plastic changes within the cortex. We have used a rat model to develop the computational and experimental tools necessary to describe changes in the way small networks of sensorimotor neurons interact and process information. We show that by repetitively pairing the recorded spikes of one neuron with electrical stimulation of another or by repetitively pairing electrical stimulation of two neurons, we can strengthen the inferred functional connection between the pair of neurons. We have also used the dual-stimulation protocol to enhance the ability of a trained rat to detect intracortical microstimulation behavioral cues. These results provide an important proof of concept, demonstrating the feasibility of Hebbian conditioning protocols to alter information flow in the brain. In addition to their possible application to BMI research, techniques like this may improve the efficacy of traditional rehabilitation for patients with neurologic injury.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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