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Extrasensory projection
CREATING
Student uses brain-computer interface system to Tweet
In early April, Adam Wilson is a good scientific exercise,” Wilson, who used the
posted a status update on says Justin Williams, a UW- interface to post the Twitter
the social networking Web Madison assistant professor of update, likens it to texting on
site Twitter – just by thinking biomedical engineering and a cell phone.
about it. Wilson’s adviser. “You have to press a
Just 23 characters long, “But when we talk to button four times to get the
his message, “using EEG to people who have locked-in character you want,” he says
send tweet,” demonstrates a syndrome or a spinal-cord of texting. “So this is kind
natural, manageable way in injury, their number one of a slow process at first.”
which “locked-in” patients concern is communication.” However, as with texting,
can couple brain-computer In collaboration with users improve as they practice
interface technologies with research scientist Gerwin using the interface.
modern communication tools. Schalk and colleagues at the “I’ve seen people do up to
A University of Wadsworth Center in Albany, eight characters per minute,”
Wisconsin-Madison N.Y., Williams and Wilson says Wilson.
biomedical engineering began developing a simple, A free service, Twitter
doctoral student, Wilson elegant communication has been called a “micro-
is among a growing group interface based on brain blogging” tool. User updates,
of researchers worldwide activity related to changes in called tweets, have a 140-
who aim to perfect a an object on screen. character limit – a manageable
communication system for The interface consists, message length that fits
users whose bodies do not essentially of a keyboard locked-in users’ capabilities,
work, but whose brains displayed on a computer says Williams.
function normally. screen. Tweets are displayed on
the user’s profile page and
Project was to simply move a cursor on a delivered to other Twitter
users who have signed up to
screen. But people with locked-in syndrome receive them.
wanted more – the ability to communicate. “So someone could simply
tell family and friends how
Among those are people “The way this works is they’re feeling today,” says
who have amyotrophic lateral that all the letters come up, Williams.
sclerosis (ALS), brain-stem and each one of them flashes “People at the other
stroke or high spinal cord individually,” says Williams. end can be following their
injury. “And what your brain thread and never know that
Some brain-computer the person is disabled. That
does is, if you’re looking at
interface systems employ an would really be an enabling
the ‘R’ on the screen and all
electrode-studded cap wired type of communication means
the other letters are flashing,
to a computer. for those people, and I think
nothing happens.
The electrodes detect it would make them feel, in
“But when the ‘R’ flashes, the online world, that they’re
electrical signals in the brain
your brain says, ‘Hey, wait a not that much different from
– essentially, thoughts – and
translate them into physical minute. Something’s different everybody else. That’s why we
actions, such as a cursor about what I was just paying did these things.”
motion on a computer screen. attention to.’ And you see a Schalk agrees. “This is one
“We started thinking that momentary change in brain of the first – and perhaps most
moving a cursor on a screen activity.” useful – integrations of brain-

28 SMART PEOPLE
CREATING

computer interface techniques refine development of the in-


with Internet technologies to home technology.
date,” he says. “A lot of the things that
While widespread we’ve been doing are more
implementation of brain- scientific exercises,” he
computer interface says. “This is one of the first
technologies is still years examples where we’ve found
down the road, Wadsworth something that would be
Center researchers, as well immediately useful to a much
as those at the University of larger community of people
Tübingen in Germany, are with neurological deficits.”
starting in-home trials of the Funding for the research
equipment. comes from the National

Widespread availability of the first integrations


of brain-computer interface is years away, but in-
home trials of the equipment are underway.
Wilson, who will finish Institutes of Health, UW-
his PhD soon and begin Madison Institute for Clinical
postdoctoral research at and Translational Research,
Wadsworth, plans to include UW-Madison W.H. Coulter
Twitter in the trials. Translational Research
Williams hopes the Partnership in Biomedical View and download a video of Wilson using the
Twitter application is the Engineering and Wisconsin brain-computer interface to post to Twitter at http://
nudge researchers need to Alumni Research Foundation. nitrolab.engr.wisc.edu/media/P3Twitter.mov

Exercise produces brain cells for learning and memory


An enzyme researchers have studied for years because of This allows neural stem cells to survive and proliferate.
its potential connections to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, “Inhibiting AMPK is something that most cells don’t like,
hypertension and stroke, appears to have yet another major role Dasgupta says. “It can lead to a variety of consequences,
to play: helping create and maintain the brain. including cell death, but many cell types can tolerate it. In
When scientists at Washington University School of Medicine contrast, neural stem cells undergo catastrophic cell death in the
selectively disabled the enzyme AMP – activated protein kinase absence of AMPK.”
(AMPK) – in mouse embryos, overall brain size was reduced by Dasgupta calls the new finding particularly interesting given
50 percent, the cerebrum and cerebellum shrunk, and the mice previous connections between AMPK and exercise.
died within three weeks of birth. “Exercise activates AMPK and improves cognitive function,”
Researchers showed the version of AMPK they disabled says Dasgupta. “Our results suggest brain function may improve
was essential to the survival of neural stem cells that create the because additional activated AMPK makes it easier for adult
central nervous system. neural stem cells to reproduce and become new brain cells.”
Many scientists believe these same cells also regularly Milbrandt plans to learn more about how production of
produce new brain cells essential for learning and memory and different forms of AMPK is regulated.
the general upkeep of the adult brain. “Manipulating this regulation may enable us to encourage
Jeffrey Milbrandt, M.D., PhD and Biplab Dasgupta, PhD, the development of new brain cells,” he says.
showed that when activated AMPK gets into the nucleus of stem “We might use that not only to treat medical conditions
cells, it inactivates the retinoblastoma protein, a master regulator where brain development is hampered but also to improve
of cell reproduction. cognitive function generally.”

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