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How natural hand usage shapes behavior and intrinsic and task-evoked brain activity.

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - HANDmade (How natural hand usage shapes behavior and intrinsic and task-evoked brain activity.)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-01-31

- What is the problem/issue being addressed?
Evidence accumulated in the last two decades indicates that the functional organization of the brain is not primarily dependent upon stimulus-related processing. Instead, the cognitive operations of the brain appear mainly intrinsic, that is not driven by momentary demands of the environment. For many years, the brain has been explored in term of task-induced increases of regional brain activity (i.e. activation) during goal-directed behaviors as compared to a state of control. More recently, the state of control - in the form of a state of rest with eyes open or closed - has become a window to study the functional organization of the brain. The major focus of this project is to explain how the intrinsic activity of the brain relates to psychological functions and behavior.

- Why is it important for society?
From the theoretical standpoint, this project introduces a new perspective that combines natural statistics from the environment and the body for understanding the information that is coded in the intrinsic activity. If the intrinsic activity preserves and maintains an internal model that drives the behavior this would means that our previous experience and learning constrain future knowledge and expectations. Overall, this framework has great implications for the developmental and the experimental psychology, as well as for the educational training programs. This grant has also far reaching implications for robotic-assisted technology. Understanding which resources are used by the brain for controlling tools in natural settings is crucial for the future development of biomedical technology, that use robotic system to perform new and more precise operations possible (as those implemented in micro-surgery). Over time, this technology could make its entrance in industry, e.g. in the field of the precision assembly, with positive effects on the physical burden of the workers. Finally, better knowledge on the physiological phenomena underlying the control capability of the neuroprostheses might have great impact on the training procedure which amputees undergo to control the prosthesis.

- What are the overall objectives?
The main objective of this grant is to address the overall question of what is coded in the intrinsic brain activity. Specifically, this project tests the hypothesis that the intrinsic brain activity has a functional role and it represents and maintains an internal model of the environment. Specifically, the working model of this project predicts that this internal model is built throughout the physical interaction with the surroundings. In this framework, the hand has a special status, as it represents the primary means of interaction with the environment. The second objective of this project is to test the resilience of this model to extreme manipulations of the body. This is a multidisciplinary project examining fundamental questions for psychology and neuroscience. Overall, this grant might open novel opportunities for robotic-assisted technology, as those implemented in micro-surgery, and neuroprostheses.
So far, the actions have been implemented according to the envisaged plan. In particular, for WP1 the Exp 1 planned at the beginning of M12 has been started and the data collection is quite finished. For WP2, both Exp 5 and 6 planned respectively at the M12 and M0, are still on-going according to the Gantt Chart. Preliminary results of these studies on the kinematics data and MEG recordings taken from the Human Connectome Project have been presented in international conferences (e.g. International Organization for Psychophysiology- IOP, September 2018, Human Brain Mapping, June 2019) and summer school (e.g. Adriatica summer school, June 2019). Furthermore, the PI is completing an invited review paper (Betti et al., in preparation, The Neuroscientist) addressing the main topics covered by the Project. For the WP3 during this RP, the team has started to work on the implementation of the algorithm for setting up the behavioral study in Virtual Reality. The collaboration with Proff. Maurizio Corbetta (Padua University), Stefania della Penna (Chieti University) and Emiliano Ricciardi (IMT Lucca), planned at the time of the writing of the project, is effectively running with significant positive effects on the quality of the research.
Perhaps one of the most important novelty of this project is to test how and whether the experience and the interaction between the body and the environment shape the behavior and the functional architecture of the brain. In particular, here for the first time, this project predicts that the tight relationship with the effector we use to interact with the external environment has a crucial role in molding the intrinsic and task-evoked brain activity. Hence, a major challenge of this project is to test the resilience of prior representations to extreme manipulations of the body to examine the hypothesis that novel interactions between the body and the environment modify behaviors, intrinsic and task-driven brain activities. To test this hypothesis, in virtual settings, I plan to investigate how replacing the hand of healthy participants with everyday tools (e.g. scissors, screwdrivers) triggers novel, ongoing representations and behaviors. I plan to test the extent to which alterations on the natural synergy between the body and the environment determine plastic changes of the functional architecture of the brain. I predict two main scenarios which revolve around the functional axis plasticity/stability of the human brain. First, it is entirely possible that replacing the hand may change the interaction with the environment. The end result is the formation of novel internal models of the body and the environment, as revealed through modulations of intrinsic and task-evoked brain activities. Alternatively, the functional architecture of the brain may remain stable. This would mean that prior representations constrain intrinsic and task-evoked brain activities. Overall, both these scenarios might help in elucidating the role of the intrinsic activity and its impact on behavior and cognition.
Schematic representation of the state of the project for 1RP