University of Houston researchers, using a wireless brain-body imaging system, report they are gaining new insights into how the brain identifies different terrains while walking.

The research could be a key step in the development of prosthetics designed to automatically adjust to changing ground conditions in real time, according to a media release from the University of Houston (UH).

In their study, the researchers tracked the brain activity of 10 volunteers (half men and half women). While wearing a 64-channel skullcap, each volunteer walked a course designed to take them from level ground, up and down ramps and staircases. Each volunteer completed an average of 20 trials.

In addition, the researchers used full-body motion capture technology to record how the volunteer subjects moved and collected data about lower-limb muscular activity.

Previous research in the field has involved subjects who imagine themselves walking or who walk on treadmills, rather than the real-world conditions used for this study, says Justin A. Brantley, a doctoral student in the UH Cullen College of Engineering and co-first author on a paper describing the work, published recently in PLOS ONE.

“The overarching theme is, how can we understand what is happening during locomotion in natural complex settings?” he states, in the release.

The new work, funded by National Science Foundation, demonstrates what parts of the brain perform specific functions during walking in different conditions, a discovery that will allow for improved control over prosthetic limbs but will have other applications, as well, according to Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, Cullen University Professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH and senior author of the paper, in the release.

The researchers collected the brain activity—five additional sensors were placed on the volunteers’ faces to allow researchers to screen for the impact of random movement, including eye blinks—and then mapped the signals back to the brain to determine how specific parts of the brain are involved in discrete tasks associated with walking, explains Trieu Phat Luu, co-first author and a post-doctoral researcher in the Noninvasive Brain-Machine Interface System Laboratory at UH.

“Our results showed that the changes of spectral power in neural sources localized to the posterior parietal cortex and sensorimotor cortex are associated with the level of motor task demands,” they write, per the release.

“Additionally, our results presented evidence that electrocortical amplitude modulations (relative to average gait cycle) are correlated with the level of difficulty in locomotion tasks. These findings extend our understanding of cortical dynamics of human walking at different levels of locomotion task demands.”

The researchers found several areas of the brain are involved, including the right and left occipital lobes, the posterior parietal lobe, the sensorimotor cortex and the anterior cingulate.

Per Brantley in the release, they focused on the posterior parietal lobe, an area of the brain involved with planning, and the sensorimotor cortex, which controls movement.

The next step in their research will be to translate the discovery to a high-tech prosthetic leg that can automatically adjust to different terrains through a brain-machine interface, Contreras-Vidal adds.

[Source(s): University of Houston, Science Daily]