The Plastic Brain

Chet T. Moritz, Ph.D.

Chet T. Moritz, Ph.D., hasn’t cured paralysis. Not yet. But in 2008, he and his colleagues were able to use electrical signals recorded from the brain to move an immobile arm — a decidedly good start.

“My research does have a science-fiction flair to it,” says Moritz, UW assistant professor in the departments of rehabilitation medicine and the physiology and biophysics. It has more than flair; neuroprosthetic devices that route electric signals around an injury show great promise for people who suffer from spinal-cord injuries, stroke and other debilitating motor conditions.

In that 2008 experiment, Moritz and his colleagues discovered something else: that other parts of the brain — not just the part of the brain that is normally responsible, say, for moving an arm — can be used to control a neuroprosthetic device. Today, they’re following up on that discovery.

“We’re exploring how many different parts of the brain we can use to control an arm as a potential treatment for a stroke,” says Moritz. To date, they’ve found two, and the discovery is part of a new way of thinking about the brain. “The brain and spinal cord are incredibly plastic and flexible at learning new skills,” he says.

Moritz also experiments with electrical stimulation of another kind: video game rehabilitative therapy. Thus far, he and colleagues Sarah W. (Sally) McCoy, Ph.D., UW associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, and Brian P. Otis, Ph.D., UW assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, have worked with several children who have cerebral palsy, as well as a stroke patient and a patient with traumatic brain injury. The games use biofeedback to strengthen weakened muscles and to refine the movement of paretic or partially paralyzed muscles.

The team is looking for a larger cohort of stroke patients to test the therapy. “We’ve seen very encouraging results with our first group of kids,” he says. And, he adds, “Using games makes our therapy quite enjoyable.”

Learn more about Moritz’s work.

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