Carrying a virtual cup of coffee can provide insights into how the central nervous system works and may open new avenues for intervention for neurologically impaired people, according to research conducted by Dagmar Sternad.
A professor of biology at Northeastern, with joint appointments in electrical and computer engineering and physics, Sternad was recently awarded a five-year $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate how humans acquire and control sensorimotor skills—the ability to coordinate sensory experiences, such as seeing and hearing, with physical actions.
Such coordination is fundamental to all human existence, but scientists know surprisingly little about how the brain controls the body. As a consequence, when people suffer from an injury to the brain that impairs their ability to perform common sensorimotor tasks—such as using a knife and fork—scientists are still largely in the dark about how to provide targeted therapeutic interventions.
Sternad takes a systems approach to understanding coordination and control in the complex human system. Using mathematical models based on physical principles to model the workings of the neuro-motor system, Sternad has designed several “toy tasks” to conduct her fundamental research.
One experimental set-up simulates the task of carrying a cup of coffee using a virtual environment with an interface that is affected by a users’ sense of touch.
The research subject is asked to grasp a robotic arm and move a virtual cup across the screen without having the ball inside the cup—representing the coffee—fall out. In order to do that, the subject must apply the right amount of force to the cup, and they feel the dynamics of the moved object via the robotic arm. The movements of the subjects are recorded and analyzed to see how they manipulated their movements to perform the task.
Experiments like this, said Sternad, test how humans coordinate their movements and interact with objects via visual and other sensory information. “While the research is mainly fundamental, it has clear and tangible applications in the clinical area,” she added.