Disabilities may find help in yoga

A University study found that meditation helps interactions between brain and computer.

Kaylee Kruschke

After being fitted with a netlike cap of electrodes and wires, the subjects were given unusual directions: “Don’t move — just imagine that you are.”

When they did, those who were long-term yoga or meditation practitioners were better at moving a computer cursor with only their imaginations.

Recently published University of Minnesota research revealed that yoga or meditation can boost the quality of interactions between the brain and a computer. Now, lead researcher Bin He said he wants to apply those findings to help patients with paralysis, neurodegenerative diseases or disabilities to better use robotic and mechanical devices.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, found that 75 percent of yogis could successfully complete a series of tests in which they moved a computer cursor using only their thoughts — while only a third of participants with little to no yoga experience could, He said.

“In the beginning, everyone failed,” He said. “Then gradually you can see yoga and meditation subjects very quickly … were able to pass.”

He, who also serves as the director of the Institute for Engineering in Medicine, said the hope is to harness the mind-body awareness cultivated through meditation and apply it to mind-controlled technology for patients with disabilities.

For example, those with any kind of motor ability loss would be able to imagine themselves doing a task and transmit that thought into a signal to move either a prosthetic or a wheelchair, He said.

“This work suggests that the patient could do some meditation and that would help them to pick up [brain-computer interface] skills,” He said. “That could help more patients benefit from this technology.”

Sadhya Bharadwaj, adviser of the University’s Art of Living Club, said he’s been regularly practicing yoga for eight years.

“You’re able to have control over what you think and what you’re able to manifest from your thoughts,” he said. “I definitely feel that is one of the most important benefits.”

Moving forward, He said he hopes to study whether individuals without yoga or meditation experience can improve those brain-computer interface skills by beginning to practice.

“My goal really … is to help the [disabled] patients … who are hopeless sitting in a wheelchair get help by themselves without an assistant standing next to him or her,” He said.

Turning thoughts to action

To find participants, researchers supplemented a usual strategy of campus fliers with some scouting at Your Yoga in Dinkytown, said Albert You, a biomedical engineering undergraduate student who helped with the research.

By the end of their search, the four-person research team ended up with 12 participants who had at least one year of regular yoga or meditation experience and 24 with little to none.

In spring 2013, they began work with a key technology: brain-computer interfaces.

The interfaces, which allow the brain to communicate with computers, connected to participants’ heads with a cap that has scanners to measure brain activity.

The subjects were then told to imagine squeezing either their left or right hand in order to move the computer cursor in the corresponding direction, You said.

When they imagined performing that action, neurons disturbed the resting brain, He said. Electrodes then transmitted that disruption as a signal that the software in turn transformed into a computer control.

“The key,” He said, “is to detect and decode an extremely weak signal that has been generated by neurons when we imagine.”

Those subjects who were able to complete the task after multiple tries moved on to trying to move the cursor up or down — instead of left or right — He said.

Participants with yoga and meditation experience learned the skill about three times faster, He said.

“It’s possible that it’s because you can differentiate between your two body sides and that helps you to differentiate the signals better,” You said.

Inspiration for the study struck him five years ago when a high-performing subject in a previous brain-computer interface study revealed that she had been practicing yoga and meditation for several years, He said, prompting him to wonder if there was a connection between the practice and brain activity.

“Maybe there’s something on the brain side and not the computer side [that needs improving],” He said.