Researchers identify brain command centre for tool use

Published by  News archive

On 8th Jun 2022

A doctor performs a brain scan.
Getty images

New research shows for the first time the brain regions that determine how to correctly handle tools – a crucial development for managing some types of brain damage and dementia.

The findings from the University of East Anglia (UEA) could help better understand the problems with object use found in several neurological conditions associated with temporal lobe damage, such as some forms of dementia (e.g., semantic dementia).

In addition, it could help develop better devices or rehabilitation for people who have lost function in their limbs due to brain injury. It could even contribute to the creation of next generation neuroprosthetics, allowing people without limbs to control prosthetics with their minds.

The discovery could also provide insight into how the brain evolved to support the use of tools, a defining feature of the human species.

Lead researcher, Dr Stéphanie Rossit of UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “The research shows for the first time that brain regions in the anterior part of the temporal lobe (underneath the ears) represent how to correctly handle tools. While many neuroscientific theories had proposed this before, we are the first team to provide actual research data to support this. 

“This brain region has been studied for more than a century as it is thought to store general knowledge and meaning about the world that surrounds us. Here we show that it stores important information for correctly interacting with real-world objects.” 

The team used an MRI scanner to collect brain imaging data while 20 participants interacted with 3D objects. Using a special imaging technique called functional MRI (fMRI), they measured activity throughout the brain. 

The participants manipulated a spoon, a knife and a pizza cutter, and were also given elongated shapes that did not represent tools and asked to grasp the objects by their handles. 

Dr Rossit said: “Throughout all aspects of experimentation, the stimuli were purposefully referred to as ‘objects’ rather than tools. Since participants were not required to form intentions of using these tools, or even process their identities, our results demonstrate that tool representations are automatically triggered. 

“Knowing not to grasp an object – like a knife, by its blade – is critical. By examining neuroimaging evidence, we can see the anterior temporal cortex represents conceptual information about tools, like the usual locations we should grasp them for use.” 

The data, code and materials used in the project have been made openly available by the research team so that it is more transparent and can be re-used by other research teams around the world to advance the field. 

The study was carried out by Dr Ethan Knights, who scanned the brain of volunteers at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, and in collaboration with Dr Fraser W. Smith, also at UEA.  

Dr Knights said: “Our work is a great example of how machine-learning can be applied to brain-imaging data for understanding how the brain works.” 

The research was funded by BIAL Foundation and Drs Rossit and Smith have just secured a new grant from British Academy/Leverhulme Trust to investigate how different uses of hand-held tools are represented in the brain. 

'The role of the anterior temporal cortex in action: evidence from fMRI multivariate searchlight analysis during real object grasping’, is published June 5, 2022 in Scientific Reports. 

Latest News

 
image of the brain
01 Dec 2022

University study to support families after Traumatic Brain Injury 

UEA is one of four universities to receive £140,000 funding to conduct a study to determine whether storytelling can support the wellbeing and adjustment of...

Read more >
 
An overweight woman in a doctor's office.
30 Nov 2022

Overweight women most likely to suffer long Covid

Overweight women are more likely to experience symptoms of long Covid according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Read more >
 
Two panels of the climate change mural artwork
25 Nov 2022

Climate change mural now on display at Norwich City Hall in historic year for Climatic Research Unit

On the 50th anniversary year of UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), the stark impact of climate change has been brought into focus by a giant mural now on...

Read more >
 
25 Nov 2022

Subsidence control reduces flood risk in China’s coastal communities in China

New research suggests that implementation of a national policy of subsidence control would greatly reduce the impacts on sea level rise for people living in...

Read more >
Are you searching for something?
 
25 Nov 2022

Subsidence control reduces flood risk in China’s coastal communities in China

New research suggests that implementation of a national policy of subsidence control would greatly reduce the impacts on sea level rise for people living in...

Read more >
 
Chimneys with smoke
23 Nov 2022

UEA receives share of £5 million investment

UEA is part of a UK research consortium led by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to receive £5 million investment to grow national greenhouse gas...

Read more >
 
Chemical molecules
01 Nov 2022

UEA researchers uncover how ancient protein-bound iron cofactors are assembled in bacteria

Mass spectrometric studies of the assembly of an essential and common iron- and sulfur-containing cofactor has revealed a ‘sulfur first’ mechanism.

Read more >
 
01 Nov 2022

Dec 22 issue of UEA Chemistry Magazine is out now

The December 2022 edition of our UEA Chemistry Magazine: yoUr chEm mAg is now available.

Read more >
 
Hanna Thomas Uose
30 Nov 2022

UEA creative writing student wins national writers prize for unpublished novel

Hanna Thomas Uose, who is studying for an MA in Prose Fiction at the University, has won the Morley Prize for Unpublished Writers of Colour 2022. 

Read more >