Your Brain Is A Cartographer

The concept that the brain holds maps of the surface of the body in the primary sensory and motor cortex is a fascinating but well known fact to the field of neuroscience since the early work of Wilder Penfield. What is less broadly appreciated is the concept of “peripersonal space”. A new book by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee describes peripersonal space in the following way:

The maps that encode your physical body are connected directly, immediately, personally to a map of every point in that space and also map out your potential to perform actions in that space. Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. […] Your brain also faithfully maps the space beyond your body when you enter it using tools. Take hold of a long stick and tap it on the ground. As far as your brain is concerned, your hand now extends to the tip of that stick. […] Moreover, this annexed peripersonal space is not static, like an aura. It is elastic. […] It morphs every time you put on or take off clothes, wear skis or scuba gear, or wield any tool. […] When you eat with a knife and fork, your peripersonal space grows to envelop them. Brain cells that normally represent space no farther out than your fingertips expand their fields of awareness outward, along the length of each utensil, making them part of you.

What I appreciate about this, besides the stretchy comic book characters that it makes me think about, is that it provides a powerful perspective to begin piecing together a mass of disparate neuroscience data, which the Blakeslee’s capitalize on.

Continue reading


Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identites

The MIT Media Lab is holding a conference on May 9th, “Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identites” which will launch a number of new initiatives centered around the goal of inventing a better future via direct engineering of the human. Amongst these things will be the initiation of the MIT Center for Human Augmentation, and the launch of a number of novel applied Neurotechnology Projects.

Guest speakers on May 9th will include MIT professors (Roz Picard, Hugh Herr, myself, etc.) and many acclaimed speakers such as Oliver Sacks and John Donoghue. Registration may be close to being full, but it will be webcast.

More information at:

— posted by Ed

Interview on USC hippocampal prosthesis

Interview with Ted Berger of USC on their hippocampal prosthetic project in Popular Science magazine

To summarize the most interesting info from the interview:

Berger’s team is trying to make a hippocampal prosthesis (a chip that could be implanted in the hippocampus and help people with damaged hippocampuses). (we’ve mentioned Berger’s team’s efforts before).

He admits that he doesn’t understand how the hippocampus functions in memory, but argues that you may be able to make a prosthesis without this understanding: “A repairman doesn’t need to understand music to fix your broken CD player.”

The first crucial test will be done later this year by Sam Deadwyler at Wake Forest. He will implant the chips in rats, deactivate their hippocampuses with drugs, and see if the prosthetic helps.

Amputee Controls And Feels Bionic Arm as Her Own

(UPDATE 03-05-2007 – Upon closer inspection, it is clear that while the surgery has enabled the woman to have sensation in the nerves of her missing hand when the surface of her chest is touched, the arm she is fitted with at the time of publication did not relay sensory signals from the arm back to her chest. As soon as she is fitted with an arm that has the appropriate sensors, however, she will not have to undergo further surgery to have this kind of direct feedback. Thanks to astute readers for pointing this out.)

The Guardian reports on an article published today in the Lancet about a successful surgical procedure giving an amputee a bionic arm that both responds to motor commands from her remaining motor nerves to control it and provides sensory feedback to sensory nerves when it is touched. If there was any doubt left, the worlds of neural prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces have officially collided.

The Lancet article is accompanied by two movies of the woman using the arm that you should really check out.

Given the recent progress in the decoding of motor signals from the brain and older progress on sensory feedback from neural prosthetics, this was to be expected. Nonetheless, watching this woman use her arm brings the message home in a visceral way. The spooky thesis of MIT CSAIL’s Rodney Brooks that “we will become a merger between flesh and machines” is one step closer today.

Continue reading

Help Please: Future of Neural Engineering: From Job perspective

Dear Members,
I am a prospective graduate student interested in taking up Neural Engineering under EE or Biomedical Engg for research. But I have a lot of concerns and need help from a person who knows about the field well.
1. I have studied VLSI, DSP, Image Processing, Wireless Communication, Control Systems and Embedded Systems as graduate and undergraduate courses and have some research interest in Neural Networks and Machine Learning(That’s how I got interested in Neural Engg and Prosthetics). Which of these subjects will be of help in Neural Engg/Prosthetics research. Which will be of most relevance. Please list them in the order of relevance(high->low).
2. What are the applications of the research ?
3. What is the research and JOB scope for this field? Are there any companies who recruit people with this specialisation? How is the job scene in academia? How many univs are doing research in this field in US? Please let me know about the career progression in academia, like how much time does it take to get full time academic position after PhD?
4. Especially, what are the applications of this research in Robotics?
5. What are the current problems and research themes in universities?
6. What imaging technologies are used in this research?

Though my queries may seem a bit ameteuristic, it is very important for me to get clarity on these doubts.
Hope my queries will be answered.
Thanking all of you in advance,

OpenStim: The Open Noninvasive Brain Stimulator

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a popular technology for stimulating human cortical neurons, due to its safety, noninvasiveness, and efficacy. A TMS device is just a little coil of wire, through which 10,000 Amps of current is cranked during a period of only a few hundred microseconds; the resultant rapidly-changing magnetic field induces eddy currents in the brain. Depending on the protocol used, TMS can drive/inhibit a region of cortex corresponding to roughly a cubic centimeter or two, and is being explored for the treatment of depression, the reduction of auditory hallucinations during schizophrenia, and the alleviation of tinnitus and migraines. Thousands of papers on medicine and psychology have been written using this tool.

Yet the device itself is expensive and rare — they can run from $20,000 to $50,000 or even more, despite the fact that they are, in essence, a coil, a switch, a bank of capacitors, and a power supply. Much of the art lies in making the devices safe and fail-proof. Is it possible to hack/engineer a system that is safe, fault-tolerant, efficacious, and inexpensive? And furthermore, can we facilitate a community that will devise such devices, and share information about protocols and approaches to brain hacking?

This past August at Foo Camp, a hackers’ conference in Northern California, a group of people got together and set out to do just that. We are designing a safe, noninvasive, modular, and “open source” brain stimulator that will open up the field of circuit modulation to a wider audience. Members of the group include therapists and mental health professionals, engineers, programmers, and others interested in either the development of such devices, or the sharing of information on this front. Key to the design is safety — we want to make sure that the devices we create are as safe as devices on the market. Also, all the information is released under the Creative Commons “Attribution and Sharealike” license. This is a new model for “open source” medical device development — which may move it beyond the domain of simply creating “cool toys,” and to creating real devices.

You can find out more information, or contribute to the project, or learn from the project, at