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Carsten Mehring - Understanding and using the neuronal code

Young, dynamic and successful – these are all words to describe Dr. Carsten Mehring who became the head of a junior researcher group at the Institute of Biology at the University of Freiburg just after finishing his PhD. His concept of coupling the brain to computers has been given the GO-Bio Award of the BMBF. At some stage in the future, the “brain-machine interface” developed by Mehring and his team will enable paralysed patients to move body parts by thought power alone. Mehring is highly fascinated by the brain, the most complex of all human organs.

Dr. Carsten Mehring (Photo: Matthias Nawrat)
Dr. Carsten Mehring was born in 1973 in Münster and his studies in physics at Heidelberg gave him insights into the basics of all the natural sciences. Initially, Mehring, who is now the head of a group of researchers at the Institute of Biology I at the University of Freiburg, was interested in the entire spectrum of research. However, following his degree thesis in the field of the biophysics of DNA and chromosome structures, which included the computer-based modelling of complex systems, Mehring decided to focus on neurobiology. He wanted to understand the mechanisms that enabled the human brain to have such complex capacities as thinking, feeling and behaviour. That’s why he decided to move to Freiburg in 2000 to do his doctorate in Prof. Dr. Ad Aertsen’s group in the Department of Neurobiology and Biophysics and start his research into the motor system, the area of our brain that governs our arbitrary movements.

Prediction of movements

During his doctorate, Mehring developed computer-based models that plausibly simulated the behaviour of the complex neuronal networks in the brain. In addition, in cooperation with a laboratory in Jerusalem, Mehring analysed data from experiments in which the activity of individual nerve cells in the motor area in apes’ brains were recorded with electrodes while the animals did certain movements. “We wanted to know how the spatial and temporal activity pattern in these brain areas correlated with the actual movements,” explained the neurophysicist. “And then we came up with the idea of using these patterns to predict the movements.”

The idea was not entirely new and had already achieved some initial successes. Based on previous experiments, Mehring and his colleagues set out to develop “brain-machine interfaces”, i.e. interfaces between the brain and a computer to translate the neuronal activity pattern into the movement of a robot arm, for example. “This might in future be used by severely paralysed people to restore at least part of their movement and communication capacities,” said Mehring.

Mehring and his colleagues use electrodes that are attached to the brain surface rather than implanted into the brain in order to record the activity of the human brain. This approach has the advantage of being less invasive. Thus, there is a smaller risk of damaging intact brain tissue.

A technology with high future potential

If the probands use their thoughts to move a cursor (green), then the computer is able to predict this movement quite well (red). (Figure: Dr. Carsten Mehring)
Initial results have already been achieved. In the meantime, the system of electrodes and computers is able to approximately predict simple arm movements from the brain activity of probands. The concept is so outstanding that it won the GO-Bio Award of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2006. The prize money supports research groups in the development of new methods in the life sciences as well as in the definition of their application potential, their technological validation and the preparation for commercial application.

The human brain, and in particular his own field of research, hold a huge fascination for Mehring. He takes chess as an example in order to demonstrate people’s extraordinary ability to move arms and legs. The requirements on a chess player are two-fold: 1) the player has to think about which piece to move and 2) he has to actually move the piece.
“The Deep Blue computer masters the first requirement better than the best chess player in the world,” said Mehring. “But any child has a far superior ability to move a piece on the chess board than a robot arm.” Anyone who has ever seen how clumsy robots are in robot football games and compares this with the ease of movement of the professional Brazilian player Ronaldinho, can somehow unlock the secrets of the capacities of the human brain.

mn – 6 Oct. 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH

Further information:
Dr. Carsten Mehring
Institute of Biology I
University of Freiburg
Hauptstr. 1
79104 Freiburg i.Br.
Tel.: +49 (0)761 203-2543
Fax: +49 (0)761 203-2921
E-mail: mehring@biologie.uni-freiburg.de
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/carsten-mehring-understanding-and-using-the-neuronal-code