If you watch science fiction movies from 1970s, you would think by the year 2016 there would be a robot in every home performing tasks like cooking, cleaning and cutting the lawn. But there isn’t.
Jörn Diedrichsen, who has come to Western University from University College London, says the simple reason robots aren’t prevalent in society yet is that understanding motor control (how humans and animals use the brain to move and act) is a difficult problem to solve. In his new role as Western Research Chair in Motor Control and Computational Neuroscience, however, his goal is to find the answers.
In his new laboratory, based at Western’s renowned Brain and Mind Institute, Diedrichsen and his collaborators are using robotics to study human movement to develop better treatments for strokes and spinal cord damage in humans.
“Robotics are a tool for us so we can see how the brain reacts to changes and how the brain adapts and learns new movements,” explains Diedrichsen, who was also appointed a professor in Western’s departments of Computer Science and Statistical and Actuarial Sciences.
“We are working on learning how the brain controls fine movement – specifically how the brain controls the hands. The hand is really a fantastic organ because we can do a lot of things with our hands: we can carry loads, we can manipulate fine objects, we can communicate with people. In a way, our hands are the Swiss Army knife of our body parts.”
Diedrichsen investigates fine motor control, in part, by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at Western’s Centre for Functional and Metabolic Mapping at Robarts Research Institute.
“One of my main motivations for coming to Western and to Canada was the strength of the imaging facilities. Western has an amazing team of MRI technicians and physicists that make the advanced methods we are using possible. This is really essential for doing good cognitive neuroscience research,” says Diedrichsen.
The university introduced Western Research Chairs in support of its Western Clusters of Research Excellence program in 2013, establishing Cognitive Neuroscience as the first cluster. The two programs will provide more than $10 million in investments over the next few years to enhance global leadership in cognitive neuroscience by supporting leading-edge research excellence and recruiting outstanding, internationally renowned scientists to Western. Renowned neuroscientist Ingrid Johnsrude was named the first Western Research Chair in 2014.
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