This essay summarizes recent advances in the field of brain-machine interfaces, with a focus on the learning and acquisition of neuroprosthetic skills.
Significant progress has occurred in the field of brain–machine interfaces (BMI) since the first demonstrations with rodents, monkeys, and humans controlling different prosthetic devices directly with neural activity. This technology holds great potential to aid large numbers of people with neurological disorders. However, despite this initial enthusiasm and the plethora of available robotic technologies, existing neural interfaces cannot as yet master the control of prosthetic, paralyzed, or otherwise disabled limbs. Here I briefly discuss recent advances from our laboratory into the neural basis of BMIs that should lead to better prosthetic control and clinically viable solutions, as well as new insights into the neurobiology of action.
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are an emerging technology with great promise for developing restorative therapies for those with disabilities. BMIs also create novel, well-defined functional circuits for action that are distinct from the natural sensorimotor apparatus. Closed-loop control of BMI systems can also actively engage learning and adaptation. These properties make BMIs uniquely suited to study learning of motor and non-physical, abstract skills. Recent work used motor BMIs to shed light on the neural representations of skill formation and motor adaptation. Emerging work in sensory BMIs, and other novel interface systems, also highlight the promise of using BMI systems to study fundamental questions in learning and sensorimotor control. This paper outlines the interpretation of BMIs as novel closed-loop systems and the benefits of these systems for studying learning. We review BMI learning studies, their relation to motor control, and propose future directions for this nascent field. Understanding learning in BMIs may both elucidate mechanisms of natural motor and abstract skill learning, and aid in developing the next generation of neuroprostheses.
brain-machine interfaces; motor learning; neural plasticity; volitional control; sensorimotor systems
A fundamental organizational principle of the primate motor system is cortical control of contralateral limb movements. Motor areas also appear to play a role in the control of ipsilateral limb movements. Several studies in monkeys have shown that individual neurons in primary motor cortex (M1) may represent, on average, the direction of movements of the ipsilateral arm. Given the increasing body of evidence demonstrating that neural ensembles can reliably represent information with a high temporal resolution, here we characterize the distributed neural representation of ipsilateral upper limb kinematics in both monkey and man. In two macaque monkeys trained to perform center-out reaching movements, we found that the ensemble spiking activity in M1 could continuously represent ipsilateral limb position. Interestingly, this representation was more correlated with joint angles than hand position. Using bilateral EMG recordings, we excluded the possibility that postural or mirror movements could exclusively account for these findings. In addition, linear methods could decode limb position from cortical field potentials in both monkeys. We also found that M1 spiking activity could control a biomimetic brain-machine interface reflecting ipsilateral kinematics. Finally, we recorded cortical field potentials from three human subjects and also consistently found evidence of a neural representation for ipsilateral movement parameters. Together, our results demonstrate the presence of a high-fidelity neural representation for ipsilateral movement and illustrates that it can be successfully incorporated into a brain-machine interface.
Ipsilateral; Ensemble; Motor Control; Brain-Machine Interface; Electrophysiology; Primary Motor Cortex
Phase–amplitude cross-frequency coupling (CFC)—where the phase of a low-frequency signal modulates the amplitude or power of a high-frequency signal—is a topic of increasing interest in neuroscience. However, existing methods of assessing CFC are inherently bivariate and cannot estimate CFC between more than two signals at a time. Given the increase in multielectrode recordings, this is a strong limitation. Furthermore, the phase coupling between multiple low-frequency signals is likely to produce a high rate of false positives when CFC is evaluated using bivariate methods. Here, we present a novel method for estimating the statistical dependence between one high-frequency signal and N low-frequency signals, termed multivariate phase-coupling estimation (PCE). Compared to bivariate methods, the PCE produces sparser estimates of CFC and can distinguish between direct and indirect coupling between neurophysiological signals—critical for accurately estimating coupling within multiscale brain networks.
Cross-frequency coupling (CFC); multiscale brain networks; multivariate analysis; neuronal oscillations; phase–amplitude coupling (PAC)
Dr. Octopus, the villain of the movie "Spiderman 2", is a fusion of man and machine. Neuroscientist Jose Carmena examines the facts behind this fictional account of a brain- machine interface
Stimulus-evoked oscillations have been observed in the visual, auditory, olfactory and somatosensory systems. To further our understanding of these oscillations, it is essential to study their occurrence and behavioral modulation in alert, awake animals. Here we show that microstimulation in barrel cortex of alert rats evokes 15–18 Hz oscillations that are strongly modulated by motor behavior. In freely whisking rats, we found that the power of the microstimulation-evoked oscillation in the local field potential was inversely correlated to the strength of whisking. This relationship was also present in rats performing a stimulus detection task suggesting that the effect was not due to sleep or drowsiness. Further, we present a computational model of the thalamocortical loop which recreates the observed phenomenon and predicts some of its underlying causes. These findings demonstrate that stimulus-evoked oscillations are strongly influenced by motor modulation of afferent somatosensory circuits.
evoked oscillations; thalamocortical; cortical microstimulation; behavioral modulation
Electrical microstimulation studies provide some of the most direct evidence for the neural representation of muscle synergies. These synergies, i.e., coordinated activations of groups of muscles, have been proposed as building blocks for the construction of motor behaviors by the nervous system. Intraspinal or intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) has been shown to evoke muscle patterns that can be resolved into a small set of synergies similar to those seen in natural behavior. However, questions remain about the validity of microstimulation as a probe of neural function, particularly given the relatively long trains of supratheshold stimuli used in these studies. Here, we examined whether muscle synergies evoked during ICMS in two rhesus macaques were similarly encoded by nearby motor cortical units during a purely voluntary behavior involving object reach, grasp, and carry movements. At each microstimulation site we identified the synergy most strongly evoked among those extracted from muscle patterns evoked over all microstimulation sites. For each cortical unit recorded at the same microstimulation site, we then identified the synergy most strongly encoded among those extracted from muscle patterns recorded during the voluntary behavior. We found that the synergy most strongly evoked at an ICMS site matched the synergy most strongly encoded by proximal units more often than expected by chance. These results suggest a common neural substrate for microstimulation-evoked motor responses and for the generation of muscle patterns during natural behaviors.
motor; movement; muscle; synergy; hand; macaque; grasping; cortex
Muscle synergies have been proposed as a mechanism to simplify movement control. Whether these coactivation patterns have any physiological reality within the nervous system remains unknown. Here we applied electrical microstimulation to motor cortical areas of rhesus macaques to evoke hand movements. Movements tended to converge towards particular postures, driven by synchronous bursts of muscle activity. Across stimulation sites, the muscle activations were reducible to linear sums of a few basic patterns—each corresponding to a muscle synergy evident in voluntary reach, grasp, and transport movements made by the animal. These synergies were represented non-uniformly over the cortical surface. We argue that the brain exploits these properties of synergies—postural equivalence, low dimensionality, and topographical representation—to simplify motor planning, even for complex hand movements.
Simultaneously measuring the activities of all neurons in a mammalian brain at millisecond resolution is a challenge beyond the limits of existing techniques in neuroscience. Entirely new approaches may be required, motivating an analysis of the fundamental physical constraints on the problem. We outline the physical principles governing brain activity mapping using optical, electrical, magnetic resonance, and molecular modalities of neural recording. Focusing on the mouse brain, we analyze the scalability of each method, concentrating on the limitations imposed by spatiotemporal resolution, energy dissipation, and volume displacement. Based on this analysis, all existing approaches require orders of magnitude improvement in key parameters. Electrical recording is limited by the low multiplexing capacity of electrodes and their lack of intrinsic spatial resolution, optical methods are constrained by the scattering of visible light in brain tissue, magnetic resonance is hindered by the diffusion and relaxation timescales of water protons, and the implementation of molecular recording is complicated by the stochastic kinetics of enzymes. Understanding the physical limits of brain activity mapping may provide insight into opportunities for novel solutions. For example, unconventional methods for delivering electrodes may enable unprecedented numbers of recording sites, embedded optical devices could allow optical detectors to be placed within a few scattering lengths of the measured neurons, and new classes of molecularly engineered sensors might obviate cumbersome hardware architectures. We also study the physics of powering and communicating with microscale devices embedded in brain tissue and find that, while radio-frequency electromagnetic data transmission suffers from a severe power–bandwidth tradeoff, communication via infrared light or ultrasound may allow high data rates due to the possibility of spatial multiplexing. The use of embedded local recording and wireless data transmission would only be viable, however, given major improvements to the power efficiency of microelectronic devices.
neural recording; brain activity mapping; electrical recording; optical methods; magnetic resonance imaging; molecular recording; embedded electronics
Understanding the principles governing the dynamic coordination of functional brain networks remains an important unmet goal within neuroscience. How do distributed ensembles of neurons transiently coordinate their activity across a variety of spatial and temporal scales? While a complete mechanistic account of this process remains elusive, evidence suggests that neuronal oscillations may play a key role in this process, with different rhythms influencing both local computation and long-range communication. To investigate this question, we recorded multiple single unit and local field potential (LFP) activity from microelectrode arrays implanted bilaterally in macaque motor areas. Monkeys performed a delayed center-out reach task either manually using their natural arm (Manual Control, MC) or under direct neural control through a brain-machine interface (Brain Control, BC). In accord with prior work, we found that the spiking activity of individual neurons is coupled to multiple aspects of the ongoing motor beta rhythm (10–45 Hz) during both MC and BC, with neurons exhibiting a diversity of coupling preferences. However, here we show that for identified single neurons, this beta-to-rate mapping can change in a reversible and task-dependent way. For example, as beta power increases, a given neuron may increase spiking during MC but decrease spiking during BC, or exhibit a reversible shift in the preferred phase of firing. The within-task stability of coupling, combined with the reversible cross-task changes in coupling, suggest that task-dependent changes in the beta-to-rate mapping play a role in the transient functional reorganization of neural ensembles. We characterize the range of task-dependent changes in the mapping from beta amplitude, phase, and inter-hemispheric phase differences to the spike rates of an ensemble of simultaneously-recorded neurons, and discuss the potential implications that dynamic remapping from oscillatory activity to spike rate and timing may hold for models of computation and communication in distributed functional brain networks.
How is the functional role of a particular neuron established within an ensemble? The concept of a neural tuning curve – the mapping from input variables such as movement direction to output firing rate – has proven useful in investigating neural function. However, prior work shows that tuning curves are not fixed but may be remapped as a function of task demands – presumably via high-level mechanisms of cognitive control. How is this accomplished? Brain rhythms may play a causal role in this process, but the coupling of single cells to network activity remains poorly understood. We investigated the coupling between rhythmic beta activity and spiking as macaques performed two different tasks. This coupling can be described in terms of a function that maps oscillatory amplitude and phase to instantaneous spike rate. Similarly to direction tuning, this “internal” tuning curve also exhibits task-dependent changes. We characterize these changes across a large ensemble of simultaneously-recorded cells, and consider some of the neuro-computational implications presented by cross-level coupling between single cells and large-scale networks. In particular, relative to the slow time-scale of behavior, the observed beta-to-rate mappings may prove useful for modulating winner-take-all dynamics on intermediate time-scales and relative spike timing on fast time-scales.
The ability to learn new skills and perfect them with practice applies not only to physical skills but also to abstract skills1, like motor planning or neuroprosthetic actions. Although plasticity in corticostriatal circuits has been implicated in learning physical skills2–4, it remains unclear if similar circuits or processes are required for abstract skill learning. We utilized a novel behavioral paradigm in rodents to investigate the role of corticostriatal plasticity in abstract skill learning. Rodents learned to control the pitch of an auditory cursor to reach one of two targets by modulating activity in primary motor cortex irrespective of physical movement. Degradation of the relation between action and outcome, as well as sensory-specific devaluation and omission tests, demonstrated that these learned neuroprosthetic actions were intentional and goal-directed, rather than habitual. Striatal neurons changed their activity with learning, with more neurons modulating their activity in relation to target-reaching as learning progressed. Concomitantly, strong relations between the activity of neurons in motor cortex and the striatum emerged. Specific deletion of striatal NMDA receptors impaired the development of this corticostriatal plasticity, and disrupted the ability to learn neuroprosthetic skills. These results suggest that corticostriatal plasticity is necessary for abstract skill learning, and that neuroprosthetic movements capitalize on the neural circuitry involved in natural motor learning.
Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI) provide a framework to study cortical dynamics and the neural correlates of learning. Neuroprosthetic control has been associated with tuning changes in specific neurons directly projecting to the BMI (hereafter ‘direct neurons’). However, little is known about the larger network dynamics. By monitoring ensembles of neurons that were either causally linked to BMI control or indirectly involved, here we show that proficient neuroprosthetic control is associated with large-scale modifications to the cortical network in macaque monkeys. Specifically, there were changes in the preferred direction of both direct and indirect neurons. Interestingly, with learning, there was a relative decrease in the net modulation of indirect neural activity in comparison to the direct activity. These widespread differential changes in the direct and indirect population activity were remarkably stable from one day to the next and readily coexisted with the long-standing cortical network for upper limb control. Thus, the process of learning BMI control is associated with differential modification of neural populations based on their specific relation to movement control.
The growing use of multi-channel neural recording techniques in behaving animals has produced rich datasets that hold immense potential for advancing our understanding of how the brain mediates behavior. One limitation of these techniques is they do not provide important information about the underlying anatomical connections among the recorded neurons within an ensemble. Inferring these connections is often intractable because the set of possible interactions grows exponentially with ensemble size. This is a fundamental challenge one confronts when interpreting these data. Unfortunately, the combination of expert knowledge and ensemble data is often insufficient for selecting a unique model of these interactions. Our approach shifts away from modeling the network diagram of the ensemble toward analyzing changes in the dynamics of the ensemble as they relate to behavior. Our contribution consists of adapting techniques from signal processing and Bayesian statistics to track the dynamics of ensemble data on time-scales comparable with behavior. We employ a Bayesian estimator to weigh prior information against the available ensemble data, and use an adaptive quantization technique to aggregate poorly estimated regions of the ensemble data space. Importantly, our method is capable of detecting changes in both the magnitude and structure of correlations among neurons missed by firing rate metrics. We show that this method is scalable across a wide range of time-scales and ensemble sizes. Lastly, the performance of this method on both simulated and real ensemble data is used to demonstrate its utility.
neural ensemble data; spikes; local field potential; data analysis; KL-divergence
In this article, the authors show that the neural representation for control of a neuroprosthetic device undergoes a process of consolidation, after which it is stable, readily recalled, and resistant to interference.
Cortical control of neuroprosthetic devices is known to require neuronal adaptations. It remains unclear whether a stable cortical representation for prosthetic function can be stored and recalled in a manner that mimics our natural recall of motor skills. Especially in light of the mixed evidence for a stationary neuron-behavior relationship in cortical motor areas, understanding this relationship during long-term neuroprosthetic control can elucidate principles of neural plasticity as well as improve prosthetic function. Here, we paired stable recordings from ensembles of primary motor cortex neurons in macaque monkeys with a constant decoder that transforms neural activity to prosthetic movements. Proficient control was closely linked to the emergence of a surprisingly stable pattern of ensemble activity, indicating that the motor cortex can consolidate a neural representation for prosthetic control in the presence of a constant decoder. The importance of such a cortical map was evident in that small perturbations to either the size of the neural ensemble or to the decoder could reversibly disrupt function. Moreover, once a cortical map became consolidated, a second map could be learned and stored. Thus, long-term use of a neuroprosthetic device is associated with the formation of a cortical map for prosthetic function that is stable across time, readily recalled, resistant to interference, and resembles a putative memory engram.
Brain–machine interfaces (BMIs) have the potential to revolutionize the care of neurologically impaired patients. Numerous studies have now shown the feasibility of direct “brain control” of a neuroprosthetic device, yet it remains unclear whether the neural representation for prosthetic control can become consolidated and remain stable over time. This question is especially intriguing given the evidence demonstrating that the neural representation for natural movements can be unstable: BMIs provide a window into the plasticity of cortical circuits in awake-behaving subjects. Here, we show that long-term neuroprosthetic control leads to the formation of a remarkably stable cortical map. Interestingly, this map has the putative attributes of a memory trace, namely, it is stable across time, readily recalled, and resistant to the storage of a second map. The demonstration of such a cortical map for prosthetic control indicates that neuroprosthetic devices could eventually be controlled through the effortless recall of motor memory in a manner that mimics natural skill acquisition and motor control.
During planning and execution of reaching movements, the activity of cortical motor neurons is modulated by a diversity of motor, sensory, and cognitive signals. Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) extract part of these modulations to directly control artificial actuators. However, cortical modulations that emerge in the novel context of operating the BMI are poorly understood.
Here we analyzed the changes in neuronal modulations that occurred in different cortical motor areas as monkeys learned to use a BMI to control reaching movements. Using spike-train analysis methods we demonstrate that the modulations of the firing-rates of cortical neurons increased abruptly after the monkeys started operating the BMI. Regression analysis revealed that these enhanced modulations were not correlated with the kinematics of the movement. The initial enhancement in firing rate modulations declined gradually with subsequent training in parallel with the improvement in behavioral performance.
We conclude that the enhanced modulations are related to computational tasks that are significant especially in novel motor contexts. Although the function and neuronal mechanism of the enhanced cortical modulations are open for further inquiries, we discuss their potential role in processing execution errors and representing corrective or explorative activity. These representations are expected to contribute to the formation of internal models of the external actuator and their decoding may facilitate BMI improvement.
Reaching and grasping in primates depend on the coordination of neural activity in large frontoparietal ensembles. Here we demonstrate that primates can learn to reach and grasp virtual objects by controlling a robot arm through a closed-loop brain–machine interface (BMIc) that uses multiple mathematical models to extract several motor parameters (i.e., hand position, velocity, gripping force, and the EMGs of multiple arm muscles) from the electrical activity of frontoparietal neuronal ensembles. As single neurons typically contribute to the encoding of several motor parameters, we observed that high BMIc accuracy required recording from large neuronal ensembles. Continuous BMIc operation by monkeys led to significant improvements in both model predictions and behavioral performance. Using visual feedback, monkeys succeeded in producing robot reach-and-grasp movements even when their arms did not move. Learning to operate the BMIc was paralleled by functional reorganization in multiple cortical areas, suggesting that the dynamic properties of the BMIc were incorporated into motor and sensory cortical representations.
With visual feedback, macaque monkeys learn to control a robot arm through a neural interface which records activity from multiple cortical areas