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Oct 11

By JANICE WOOD Associate News Editor

A new study shows that people who practice yoga and meditation over the long term can learn to control a computer with their minds faster and better than people with little or no yoga or meditation experience.

For their study, biomedical engineers at the University of Minnesota recruited 36 participants. One group of 12 had practiced yoga or meditation at least two times a week for an hour for at least a year. The second group included 24 healthy participants who had little or no yoga or meditation experience.

Both groups were new to systems using the brain to control a computer. People in both groups participated in three, two-hour experiments over four weeks in which they wore a high-tech, non-invasive cap over the scalp that picked up brain activity. The participants were asked to move a computer cursor across the screen by imaging left or right hand movements, the researchers explained.

The participants with yoga or meditation experience were twice as likely to complete the brain-computer interface task by the end of 30 trials, according to the researchers. Those with yoga or meditation experience also learned three times faster than those in the other group.

“In recent years, there has been a lot of attention on improving the computer side of the brain-computer interface, but very little attention to the brain side,” said lead researcher Bin He, a biomedical engineering professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and director of the University’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine.

“This comprehensive study shows for the first time that looking closer at the brain side may provide a valuable tool for reducing obstacles for brain-computer interface success in early stages.”

Researchers have increasingly focused on finding ways to help physically disabled individuals who are paralyzed, have lost limbs, or suffer from diseases such as ALS or cerebral palsy, according to the researcher.

For these people, brain function remains intact, but they haven’t found a way to bypass muscular control to move a wheelchair, control an artificial limb, or control other devices, he noted.

He gained international attention in 2013 when members of his research team were able to demonstrate flying a robot with only their minds. However, the researchers found that not everyone can learn to control a computer with their brains.

Researchers noticed that a consistent and reliable electroencephalography (EEG) brain signal may depend on an undistracted mind and sustained attention. Meditators have shown more distinctive EEG patterns than untrained participants, which may explain their success, according to the researchers.

He said he got the idea for the study more than five years ago when he began his brain-computer interface research and noticed one woman who was much more successful than others at controlling the computer with her brain. The woman had extensive experience with yoga and mediation, referred to by researchers as Mind-Body Awareness Training.

According to He, the next step for his team is to study a group of participants over time who are participating in yoga or meditation for the first time to see if their performance on the brain-computer interface improves.

“Our ultimate goal is to help people who are paralyzed or have brain diseases regain mobility and independence,” he said. “We need to look at all possibilities to improve the number of people who could benefit from our research.”

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine, was published in TECHNOLOGY, a new scientific journal.

Source: World Scientific Publishing Co.

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