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RIC Study Suggests Researchers Are Entering A New Era Of Advances In Brain Research

January 26, 2011

As recording technology rapidly improves, neurons give up their secrets cell by cell

Scientists at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), designated the “#1 Rehabilitation Hospital in America” by U.S. News & World Report since 1991, report that, thanks to improvements in technology and data analysis, our understanding of the functional principles that guide the development and operation of the brain could improve drastically in the next few years. The advances could herald a neuroscientific revolution, much as increasing processor speeds paved the way for the computing revolution of the last half century.

In the February, 2011 issue of Nature Neuroscience, the researchers, Dr. Ian H. Stevenson and Dr. Konrad P. Kording, performed a meta-analysis of 56 studies conducted since the 1950s (the advent of multi-electrode recordings) in which the activity of neurons was recorded in animals or humans. They found that the number of simultaneously recorded single neurons has grown exponentially since the 1950s, doubling approximately every seven years.

The researchers likened the progress in neuronal recording techniques to Moore’s law, which describes the exponential growth of processing speed that has doubled approximately every two years, making computers smaller and technology accessible to more people.

“As it becomes easier for us to access and interpret information coming from the brain, we will be able to better help those with disabilities and conditions of the nervous system,” said Dr. Kording. “Our goal is to take what we are learning about how and why the brain works so we can quickly and successfully use it to help patients. By decoding how neurons communicate with each other, we may one day be able to restore connections by conditioning different neurons to talk to each other, or to talk to each other in different ways, thereby restoring ability in our patients.”

The “firing” or “spiking” of a neuron is really a signal sent along a gradient to other neurons and throughout the entire nervous system. These signals send messages and convey important information, including representations about the world and messages that control our behaviors and actions.

According to Dr. Kording, “Recording of only a single neuron at a time was possible in the late 1950s. Now, researchers can record activity from hundreds of neurons simultaneously, gathering valuable information about when and why neurons fire or do not fire.”

In patients with conditions caused by lost connections in the brain, such as stroke or spinal cord injury, information from the brain sent via neurons cannot get relayed to certain limbs or parts of the body. Researchers at RIC are using data from neurons to pioneer research designed to restore connections and ability using novel technologies. In fact, RIC researchers recently reported that they have identified novel ways of potentially re-routing the flow of information in the nervous system using stimulation technology. Currently, RIC researchers are on the cutting-edge of exploring the use of novel brain-machine interface, functional electronic stimulation and virtual reality technology to restore function in individuals suffering from paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries or stroke.

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