Brain-computer interfaces are in the process of moving from the laboratory to the clinic. These devices act by reading neural activity and using it to directly control a device, such as a cursor on a computer screen. An open question in the field is how to map neural activity to device movement in order to achieve the most proficient control. This question is complicated by the fact that learning, especially the long-term skill learning that accompanies weeks of practice, can allow subjects to improve performance over time. Typical approaches to this problem attempt to maximize the biomimetic properties of the device in order to limit the need for extensive training. However, it is unclear if this approach would ultimately be superior to performance that might be achieved with a nonbiomimetic device once the subject has engaged in extended practice and learned how to use it. Here we approach this problem using ideas from optimal control theory. Under the assumption that the brain acts as an optimal controller, we present a formal definition of the usability of a device and show that the optimal postlearning mapping can be written as the solution of a constrained optimization problem. We then derive the optimal mappings for particular cases common to most brain-computer interfaces. Our results suggest that the common approach of creating biomimetic interfaces may not be optimal when learning is taken into account. More broadly, our method provides a blueprint for optimal device design in general control-theoretic contexts.

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