Grant to Fund Research on Brain-Hand Interactions for Cerebral Palsy, Prosthetics

Brain-Hand Research

Marco Santello (left) and students in his laboratory conduct experiments on sensory and cognitive abilities. Here a student uses grip device equipped with force and torque sensors while his vision is blocked with goggles to remove visual feedback of the task.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $640,000 grant to fund collaborative research between Arizona State University and Columbia University on the sensory and cognitive connections between the brain and hands. Researchers hope that new discoveries might benefit people with neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy and those who need prosthetic hands.

The project specifically seeks to determine the mechanisms responsible for controlling grasp and manipulation of objects, including brain functions that enable a person to learn how to and plan to do these functions.

Researchers led by Marco Santello, an ASU professor of biomedical engineering, and Andrew Gordon, a Columbia University scientist, will also examine visual cues used to asses objects before grasping or manipulating these objects.

Santello will focus on experiments that manipulate vision and touch in people with normal brain, hand and muscle functions. He uses goggles to block the vision of subjects to interfere with their ability to grasp.

Gordon, whose research centers on cerebral palsy, will study the interaction between the brain and hands, specifically assessing the information the brain gets and processes through the hands. He will also explore the role of memory.

"It's important to discern the basic mechanisms of storing the memory of recently performed actions, of planning future actions and integrating sensory feedback in healthy individuals, so that we might be better able to understand and treat neurological or musculoskeletal disorders," Santello says.

"In particular, understanding how we integrate 'what we know' from prior manipulations with an object and 'what we see' is crucial." Gordon says. "This is all the more important when our senses, and thus our ability to create sensory memories, is impaired, as is often the case in cerebral palsy."

Researchers believe the research can also be applied to improving neuroprosthetics. Controlling the hands remains a challenge, despite technological advances.