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.