Dr Ingvars Birznieks

TEAM LEADER PROFILE

Senior Research Fellow, NeuRA Senior Lecturer, Physiology, School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Medicine
Adjunct Fellow, School of Science and Health, UWS

+612 9399 1672


Dr Ingvars Birznieks is a sensory neurophysiologist interested in sensory information encoding mechanisms. He received his PhD training at Umeå University in Sweden and the University of Melbourne. After his postdoc studies, he was offered a position of senior research officer at NeuRA to contribute to the large scale cross-organisational project supported by Australian Government Special Research Initiative “Thinking Systems” – the project bringing together neuroscientists, biomedical engineers and roboticists. He established his own research network centred around the studies on neuronal information encoding mechanisms in the somatosensory system. His current focus is cross-disciplinary projects linking neuroscience, clinical neurology, and biomedical engineering.

Projects Dr Ingvars Birznieks is currently involved with

CURRENT PROJECTS

The encoding of friction by tactile mechanoreceptors

Unmatched human ability to control the hand so that brittle objects are gently held without slipping or being crushed by excessive force rely on sophisticated tactile sense in the fingertips. Our aim is to uncover some of the fundamental sensory mechanisms underlying unique human capabilities to manipulate objects and use tools. Our findings will enhance the future development of next generation sensory-controlled prosthetic and robotic manipulators.

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The encoding of friction by tactile mechanoreceptors – the key to fingertip force control during dexterous object manipulation by humans

Information encoding by temporal structure of afferent spike trains

Our ability to sense, discriminate and interpret vibrotactile stimuli underpins some of the most crucial functions of the human hand that relate to object exploration and manipulation. This project has one branch focusing on prosthetic development of a non-invasive prosthetic system that can restore tactile perception in patients and potentially could be used in brain-machine interfaces (BMIs).

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Information encoding by temporal structure of afferent spike trains evoked by complex vibrotactile stimuli

The effects of tonic muscle pain on the sympathetic and somatic motor systems

Chronic pain, defined as pain lasting for >3 months, typically develops from injuries to deep tissues such as muscle, yet little is known about how long-lasting pain affects a person's blood pressure or capacity to control their muscles. This project assesses the effects of tonic muscle pain on sympathetic nerve activity and stretch sensitivity of muscle spindles.

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The effects of tonic muscle pain on the sympathetic and somatic motor systems in human subjects

Adaptation and aftereffects in perception of tactile motion

The hand's exquisite sensitivity depends to a large extent on its motion relative to the objects it touches or manipulates. Tactile motion is analysed using mechanisms we do not understand, and the aim of the proposed research is to contribute to their better understanding. We use psychophysical and neurophysiological methods to study adaptation to motion in touch. This is basic research that contributes to the knowledge underlying applications in the fields of clinical neurology, robotics and virtual reality systems.

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Adaptation and aftereffects in perception of tactile motion

Restoring sensitivity in peripheral neuropathy

The elderly and patients with diabetes are at high risk of losing sensation in their feet and currently no treatment for this condition exists. This loss of feeling leads to falls, fractures and foot ulcers, which in many cases end with amputation. We have developed a new subsensory stimulation technique which for the first time restores lost sensation.

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Restoring sensitivity in peripheral neuropathy

Somatotopic mismatch of hand representation following stroke

We have developed a testing technique that enables us to identify various distortions of somatotopic representation after stroke that are not detected by routine clinical testing and remain unknown to patients themselves. This indicates the need to raise awareness about this pathological condition and identify patients who would potentially benefit from sensory rehabilitation. We suggest that new rehabilitation strategies need to be developed specifically for such patients.

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Somatotopic mismatch of hand representation following stroke

RESEARCH TEAM

PATRICK KASI

DR HEBA KHAMIS

Sarah McIntyre

DR SARAH MCINTYRE

DR TATJANA SIZOVA–CAJIC

DR STEPHEN REDMOND

DR RICHARD VICKERY

PUBLICATIONS

Spike Timing Matters in Novel Neuronal Code Involved in Vibrotactile Frequency Perception.

Birznieks I, Vickery RM

Skin vibrations sensed by tactile receptors contribute significantly to the perception of object properties during tactile exploration [1-4] and to sensorimotor control during object manipulation [5]. Sustained low-frequency skin vibration (<60 Hz) evokes a distinct tactile sensation referred to as flutter whose frequency can be clearly perceived [6]. How afferent spiking activity translates into the perception of frequency is still unknown. Measures based on mean spike rates of neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex are sufficient to explain performance in some frequency discrimination tasks [7-11]; however, there is emerging evidence that stimuli can be distinguished based also on temporal features of neural activity [12, 13]. Our study's advance is to demonstrate that temporal features are fundamental for vibrotactile frequency perception. Pulsatile mechanical stimuli were used to elicit specified temporal spike train patterns in tactile afferents, and subsequently psychophysical methods were employed to characterize human frequency perception. Remarkably, the most salient temporal feature determining vibrotactile frequency was not the underlying periodicity but, rather, the duration of the silent gap between successive bursts of neural activity. This burst gap code for frequency represents a previously unknown form of neural coding in the tactile sensory system, which parallels auditory pitch perception mechanisms based on purely temporal information where longer inter-pulse intervals receive higher perceptual weights than short intervals [14]. Our study also demonstrates that human perception of stimuli can be determined exclusively by temporal features of spike trains independent of the mean spike rate and without contribution from population response factors.

Can Video Self-Modeling Improve Affected Limb Reach and Grasp Ability in Stroke Patients?

Steel KA, Mudie K, Sandoval R, Anderson D, Dogramaci S, Rehmanjan M, Birznieks I

The authors examined whether feedforward video self-modeling (FF VSM) would improve control over the affected limb, movement self-confidence, movement self-consciousness, and well-being in 18 stroke survivors. Participants completed a cup transport task and 2 questionnaires related to psychological processes pre- and postintervention. Pretest video footage of the unaffected limb performing the task was edited to create a best-of or mirror-reversed training DVD, creating the illusion that patients were performing proficiently with the affected limb. The training yielded significant improvements for the forward movement of the affected limb compared to the unaffected limb. Significant improvements were also seen in movement self-confidence, movement self-consciousness, and well-being. FF VSM appears to be a viable way to improve motor ability in populations with movement disorders.

Muscle spindles in human tibialis anterior encode muscle fascicle length changes.

Day J, Bent LR, Birznieks I, Macefield VG, Cresswell AG

Muscle spindles provide exquisitely sensitive proprioceptive information regarding joint position and movement. Through passively driven length changes in the muscle-tendon unit (MTU), muscle spindles detect joint rotations because of their in-parallel mechanical linkage to muscle fascicles. In human microneurography studies, muscle fascicles are assumed to follow the MTU and, as such, fascicle length is not measured in such studies. However, under certain mechanical conditions, compliant structures can act to decouple the fascicles, and, therefore, the spindles, from the MTU. Such decoupling may reduce the fidelity by which muscle spindles encode joint position and movement. The aim of the present study was to measure, for the first time, both the changes in firing of single muscle spindle afferents and changes in muscle fascicle length in vivo from the tibialis anterior muscle (TA) during passive rotations about the ankle. Unitary recordings were made from 15 muscle spindle afferents supplying TA via a microelectrode inserted into the common peroneal nerve. Ultrasonography was used to measure the length of an individual fascicle of TA. We saw a strong correlation between fascicle length and firing rate during passive ankle rotations of varying rates (0.1-0.5 Hz) and amplitudes (1-9°). In particular, we saw responses observed at relatively small changes in muscle length that highlight the sensitivity of the TA muscle to small length changes. This study is the first to measure spindle firing and fascicle dynamics in vivo and provides an experimental basis for further understanding the link between fascicle length, MTU length, and spindle firing patterns.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Muscle spindles are exquisitely sensitive to changes in muscle length, but recordings from human muscle spindle afferents are usually correlated with joint angle rather than muscle fascicle length. In this study, we monitored both muscle fascicle length and spindle firing from the human tibialis anterior muscle in vivo. Our findings are the first to measure these signals in vivo and provide an experimental basis for exploring this link further.

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