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HOME > Encouragement of Learning > Understand the brain, use the brain

Understand the brain, use the brain

USHIBA,Junichi (Ph.D)

Every day we use our legs and walk the streets, stretch out our arms to pick up a glass without even thinking about it. Such movements occur when the brain’s billions of nerve cells exchange signals and deliver orders to our arm and leg muscles to contract in the right way and with a certain amount of strength. Understanding this mechanism allows us to pursue the structure of limb disability caused by strokes or Parkinson’s disease and also to carry out further research to develop medical treatment. We became subjects ourselves in an attempt to analyze brain activity while exercising (Figure 1), and created a virtual formulation of the nerve network using a calculator and electronic circuit (Figure 2).

Concretely speaking, we developed a technique to accurately sense small trembles in the limbs, which we are not conscious of, by mathematically analyzing signals in the brain and muscles (Figure 3). Extensive research of a hundred participants produced results that showed that the “skill” of limbs is related to “the brain’s innate cleverness”. The analysis method we used and the findings our brain science research yielded may be applied in medical treatment and sports science. Our demonstrative experiment has been carried out at research centers inside and outside Keio University.

As an extension of our research on “understanding the brain”, we did research on “making use of the brain”, which involved monitoring the brain’s real-time conditions and operating external machinery and tools (a PC, for example), in line with fluctuations in the brain. This technique is known as Brain-Machine Interface and it has been researched all over the world as it is key to improving the lives of people with disabilities and reduced limb capacity. A mouse cursor which can be moved just by thinking. Robot hands that grasp a cup that your own hands cannot. These are ideas that were once the stuff of science fiction novels or films but may come true in the near future. Our research team has pioneered a technology that operates the characters in the internet-based 3-D virtual reality society “Second Life”, based on images of limb motions (Figure 4). It will be upgraded this year and will allow the characters to converse and interact with one another and to even to purchase clothes that they like at a shopping mall in this virtual society. The technology depicted in the film, “MATRIX”, where real society and virtual society integrate, has been lauded as a technology crucial to supporting the daily life of patients suffering from quadriplegia, both in Japan and internationally. (Please refer to articles and coverage by Reuters’ for further details).

While this technology that can read brain activity and move machines would be welcome news for the patients suffering from quadriplegia, who cannot move their own limbs by themselves, it is also true that the application of this technology raises certain ethical questions. How far should we delve into the human brains? To exactly what extent is it acceptable to integrate the brain with machines? With the rapid growth of technology, we need to think again about “what humans are”.

The progress of life science coupled with device engineering, has created a new world that encroaches onto our sense of value and ethics. Epoch-making brain science requires not only technological expertise, but also integrated, inter-disciplinary understanding of extensive fields. Why not take on this new academic departure that combines and integrates the traditional disciplines of physical science, engineering and medical science?

Tomita and Ushiba Research Center collaborates with the Keio University Tsukigase Rehabilitation Center, the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Keio University’s School of Medicine, and the Department of Rehabilitation, to implement educational research that integrates medical science with engineering, at the front line.