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Grant awarded to visionary research on how the brain predicts the outside world

Henrik Jörntell (Photo: Ingemar Hultquist)
Henrik Jörntell (Photo: Ingemar Hultquist)

How does the brain process information that is generated when we touch different things with our hands – the mirror of deeper intelligence? Could that knowledge teach us to better understand and diagnose brain diseases? An EU grant of SEK 32 million will go towards studying what happens in the brain when we interact with the world around us.

The SEK 32 million grant is awarded by the EU Future and Emerging Technologies fund to an international research consortium composed of Swedish, British and French researchers and companies, led by researcher Henrik Jörntell at Lund University in Sweden. Researchers in neuroscience and robotics will together examine what happens in the brain when we touch things around us, and how this helps the brain predict the outside world.

The researchers want to use these “brain principles” as a basis for extracting and applying vast sensory information to create different types of user interfaces. This will be done with the help of nanotechnology and
fine precision electromechanics. The idea is that the results can be used both for next generation virtual reality (VR) and in the field of medicine.

“When we interact with things through touch, our hands reflect our intentions. This way, you could say that the hand is the mirror of our deeper intelligence. For example, we think it’s possible to identify different types of brain disorders at an early stage by recording and reading how someone uses their hands in interactions with the outside world”, says Henrik Jörntell, researcher at Lund University and leader of the consortium which has now been awarded a grant

Unlike a digital camera that has passive sensors creating an image, our skin sensors interact with our muscles. The brain then tries to predict what is about to happen, based on the sensory information generated by the muscles in each interaction with the outside world.

You could say that the researchers want to develop a two-way interface. This means that a person can interact with a passive receptor, designed with the help of nanotechnology to sense the user’s higher intentions, but the machine can in turn influence the person by returning sensory feedback to the user.

“Eventually, the brain learns that when we move in a certain way, it can expect to receive sensory information of a certain type. We want to use the brain’s processing of this information as a basis for developing new technology.”

Henrik Jörntell gives an example of an application that may benefit from the research:

“Today, keyhole surgery is common, but it is limited by the sensitivity of the robotics systems with which the surgeon interacts. In this context, an improved user interface could dramatically improve the surgeon’s management of the remote-controlled tool, thereby potentially greatly expanding the opportunities in terms of what can be achieved within the field of keyhole surgery”, concludes Henrik Jörntell.

Henrik Jörntell, senior lecturer and associate professor of neurophysiology
+46 46 222 7764
henrik [dot] jorntell [at] med [dot] lu [dot] se

About Future and Emerging Technologies (FET):
FET Open supports early-stage visionary research that paves the way for radical new innovations and ideas, and that challenges current thinking. Applications should be cutting edge with a high potential impact.
The criteria for applications are:

A radical vision;
A breakthrough technological target;
An ambitious interdisciplinary research.

The research consortium led by Henrik Jörntell is the first coordinated FET Open project at Lund University, within the framework of Horizon 2020, the largest EU research and innovation programme:

Henrik Jörntell, Brain sensorimotor functions, Faculty of Medicine, Lund University
Etienne Burdet, Imperial College, London
Ravinder Dahiya, University of Glasgow
Vincent Hayward, Actronika SAS, Paris