Researchers can now determine the action a person is planning, mere moments before that action is actually executed.
"This is a considerable step forward in our understanding of how the human brain plans actions," said Jason Gallivan, a Western Neuroscience PhD student, who was the first author on the paper.
Over the course of the one-year study, human subjects had their brain activity scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they performed one of three hand movements: grasping the top of an object, grasping the bottom of the object, or simply reaching out and touching the object.
The team found that by using the signals from many brain regions, they could predict, better than chance, which of the actions the volunteer was merely intending to do, seconds later.
"Neuroimaging allows us to look at how action planning unfolds within human brain areas without having to insert electrodes directly into the human brain. This is obviously far less intrusive," explained Western Psychology professor Jody Culham, who was the paper's senior author.
Gallivan said the new findings could also have important clinical implications: "Being able to predict a human's desired movements using brain signals takes us one step closer to using those signals to control prosthetic limbs in movement-impaired patient populations, like those who suffer from spinal cord injuries or locked-in syndrome."
The findings have been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.