The design of efficient neuroprosthetic devices has become a major challenge for the long-term goal of restoring autonomy to motor-impaired patients. One approach for brain control of actuators consists in decoding the activity pattern obtained by simultaneously recording large neuronal ensembles in order to predict in real-time the subject's intention, and move the prosthesis accordingly. An alternative way is to assign the output of one or a few neurons by operant conditioning to control the prosthesis with rules defined by the experimenter, and rely on the functional adaptation of these neurons during learning to reach the desired behavioral outcome. Here, several motor cortex neurons were recorded simultaneously in head-fixed awake rats and were conditioned, one at a time, to modulate their firing rate up and down in order to control the speed and direction of a one-dimensional actuator carrying a water bottle. The goal was to maintain the bottle in front of the rat's mouth, allowing it to drink. After learning, all conditioned neurons modulated their firing rate, effectively controlling the bottle position so that the drinking time was increased relative to chance. The mean firing rate averaged over all bottle trajectories depended non-linearly on position, so that the mouth position operated as an attractor. Some modifications of mean firing rate were observed in the surrounding neurons, but to a lesser extent. Notably, the conditioned neuron reacted faster and led to a better control than surrounding neurons, as calculated by using the activity of those neurons to generate simulated bottle trajectories. Our study demonstrates the feasibility, even in the rodent, of using a motor cortex neuron to control a prosthesis in real-time bidirectionally. The learning process includes modifications of the activity of neighboring cortical neurons, while the conditioned neuron selectively leads the activity patterns associated with the prosthesis control.
Keywords: brain-machine interface; learning; neuronal plasticity; neuroprosthesis.