faculty member Andrew Schwartz, PhD (pictured), is a Professor of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh. Recently, Scott Pelley of the CBS News Show 60 Minutes visited Dr. Schwartz’s lab to talk about his astounding technology that his team is developing that directly connects the human brain to a computer. As Mr. Pelley reports, it's like a sudden leap in human evolution - a leap that could one day help paralyzed people to walk again and amputees to move bionic limbs. And, the connection has already been made for a few people, and for them it has been life changing.
As a systems neurophysiology lab, Dr. Schwartz and his team are interested in the way neural activity drives behavior. Since behavior is generated by neural activity there is a temporal correspondence between them. Their goal is to describe this time-varying relation and to discover fundamental organization principles linking neural activity to behavior.
The research program is centered on the relation between cerebral cortical activity and arm movement. Over the last 20 years, the researchers have found that there is a very good representation of the arm’s trajectory in the collective firing pattern of frontal cortical activity. This representation is robust, predictive, and contains many of the behavioral invariants characteristic of natural arm movement.
In his lab, Dr. Schwartz has implanted a grid of electrodes inside the brains of monkeys. The grid is tiny, but there are 100 sensors, each listening to a different brain cell, or neuron. Dr. Schwartz has been decoding that language by watching the monkey's movement and recording the corresponding signals in its brain.
Asked what that tells him, Dr. Schwartz says, "So there's a relationship between how fast the neuron fires and the way the animal moves its hand. And we're trying to understand that relationship so that if we see a neuron firing we can say, 'Ah, the animal's about to make this kind of movement.'"
Once Dr. Schwartz started to figure out that relationship, he was able to connect the monkey's brain directly to a robotic arm. Within days, the monkey operated the arm as if it was his own. "The monkey has both arms restrained. And we’re recording brain signals from its brain and it’s using those brain signals to operate this entire arm," Schwartz explains. "As well as the gripper."
Dr. Schwartz says the monkey is operating the robotic arm with nothing but his thoughts. Asked what the chances are that a human would be able to do the same thing, he says, "Oh, we think a human being could do much better."
Illustration: McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
CBS News: 60 Minutes—Harnessing the Power of the Brain (with video) (11/02/08)
CNET (with video) (11/02/08)
Bio: Andrew Schwartz, PhD
Motorlab, University of Pittsburgh (with video)