Researchers use WWII code-breaking techniques to interpret brain data

January 1, 2018 by Ashley

From the University of Pennsylvania press release:

Cracking the German Enigma code is considered to be one of the decisive factors that hastened Allied victory in World War II. Starting with clues derived from espionage, computer scientists were able to work out the rules that turned a string of gibberish characters into plain German, providing life-saving and war-shortening intelligence.

A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Northwestern University have now accomplished a similar feat, using cryptographic techniques to decode the activity of motor neurons. Their approach has allowed them to predict, from brain data, and with only generic knowledge of typical movements, which direction monkeys will move their arms.

The same cryptography-inspired technique could eventually be used to decode more complex patterns of muscle activation, for use in prosthetic devices, or even speech, to aid those with total paralysis.

The research team was led by Konrad Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Department of Neuroscience in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and in the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Eva Dyer, then a postdoctoral researcher in Kording’s lab and now an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. They collaborated with the group of Lee Miller, a professor of physiology at Northwestern University.

The researchers published their study in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

In an experiment with three rhesus macaques, the researchers took data from several hundred neurons associated with arm movement. As the monkeys completed tasks where they had to reach to a target that appeared at different points around a central starting point, in-dwelling electrodes recorded spikes of electrical activity that corresponded with the movement of the monkey’s arm.


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