Brain-computer interface, virtual avatar promote movement in brain

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Researchers from the University of Houston have completed a study using a brain-computer interface paired with a virtual avatar to control gait to assist patients recovering the ability to walk after a stroke and other impairments. The study, published in Scientific Reports, aimed to further development of brain-computer interfaces.

Conduced at the university's Noninvasive Brain-Machine Interface System Laboratory, the study involved a non-invasive monitoring system to pinpoint which parts of the brain were involved in activity to create an algorithm, or brain-machine interface, to translate brain signals into movements. Along with a virtual walking avatar to control gait, the technology is able to promote cortical involvement when walking.

"Voluntary control of movements is crucial for motor learning and physical rehabilitation," wrote the authors. "Our results suggest the possible benefits of using a closed-loop EEG-based BCI-VR (brain-computer interface-virtual reality) system in inducing voluntary control of human gait."

Led by Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH and senior author of the paper, the study enrolled eight healthy participants who were fitted with a headset and motion sensors at the hip, knee and ankle to track movement when walking on a treadmill as they watched an avatar on a monitor. The avatar, moving according to the participants sensors, was later controlled by the brain-computer interface. While less accurate than using motion sensors, participants were able to move the avatar using the brain interface to increase brain activity in the motion part of the brain.

"The appeal of brain-machine interface is that it places the user at the center of the therapy," Contreras-Vidal said. "They have to be engaged, because they are in control. It's like learning to use a new tool or sport. You have to understand how the tool works. The brain needs time to learn that."