Remapping residual coordination for controlling assistive devices and recovering motor functions

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Abstract

The concept of human motor redundancy attracted much attention since the early studies of motor control, as it highlights the ability of the motor system to generate a great variety of movements to achieve any well-defined goal. The abundance of degrees of freedom in the human body may be a fundamental resource in the learning and remapping problems that are encountered in human–machine interfaces (HMIs) developments. The HMI can act at different levels decoding brain signals or body signals to control an external device. The transformation from neural signals to device commands is the core of research on brain–machine interfaces (BMIs). However, while BMIs bypass completely the final path of the motor system, body–machine interfaces (BoMIs) take advantage of motor skills that are still available to the user and have the potential to enhance these skills through their consistent use. BoMIs empower people with severe motor disabilities with the possibility to control external devices, and they concurrently offer the opportunity to focus on achieving rehabilitative goals. In this study we describe a theoretical paradigm for the use of a BoMI in rehabilitation. The proposed BoMI remaps the user's residual upper body mobility to the two coordinates of a cursor on a computer screen. This mapping is obtained by principal component analysis (PCA). We hypothesize that the BoMI can be specifically programmed to engage the users in functional exercises aimed at partial recovery of motor skills, while simultaneously controlling the cursor and carrying out functional tasks, e.g. playing games. Specifically, PCA allows us to select not only the subspace that is most comfortable for the user to act upon, but also the degrees of freedom and coordination patterns that the user has more difficulty engaging. In this article, we describe a family of map modifications that can be made to change the motor behavior of the user. Depending on the characteristics of the impairment of each high-level spinal cord injury (SCI) survivor, we can make modifications to restore a higher level of symmetric mobility (left versus right), or to increase the strength and range of motion of the upper body that was spared by the injury. Results showed that this approach restored symmetry between left and right side of the body, with an increase of mobility and strength of all the degrees of freedom in the participants involved in the control of the interface. This is a proof of concept that our BoMI may be used concurrently to control assistive devices and reach specific rehabilitative goals. Engaging the users in functional and entertaining tasks while practicing the interface and changing the map in the proposed ways is a novel approach to rehabilitation treatments facilitated by portable and low-cost technologies.

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