Neurofeedback and Dominoes

Dominoes are small rectangular blocks of wood or plastic, each bearing from one to six dots or spots. A complete domino set is usually 28 tiles. Each domino has a line across the middle to divide it visually into two squares, called ends. Each end may be marked with a number, indicating its value, or blank. A domino that has all six pips is in the suit of six; those without any are in the suit of zero. Games played with dominoes include layout games, blocking games, and scoring games.

Hevesh started playing with dominoes as a child, when her grandparents gave her a classic 28-pack. She loved setting them up in straight and curved lines, flicking them, and watching each piece fall. Today, she’s a professional domino artist who creates stunning setups for movies, TV shows, and events—including the album launch of pop star Katy Perry. She makes test versions of each section of an installation before putting it all together. This way, she can make precise corrections when something doesn’t quite work.

She’s also used her knowledge of the science of dominoes to help people with brain injuries and other physical disabilities learn how to regain their lives. In particular, she’s studied how the smallest domino effect—the first small action that causes a series of larger reactions—can be replicated by patients using neurofeedback technology.

In neuroscience, a domino is a model of how nerve impulses travel down the length of an axon. Like the dominoes that you play with, a nerve impulse moves at a constant speed regardless of its size, and it can only move in one direction. The axon can be stimulated with a small trigger, such as a touch or sound. Similarly, you can generate a domino effect on an axon by applying an electric current to it.

Hevesh has been able to demonstrate how dominoes can be used to replicate the effects of nerve impulses in her laboratory at Duke University. She and her team have developed a computer program that simulates the dynamics of a human brain, and they’re working toward developing a robot to test their ideas in vivo.

Hevesh has also studied how to use dominoes to teach physics and engineering students about the nature of matter and force. In particular, she and her team are investigating how a single domino can be positioned to influence the motion of a larger group of dominoes, as well as the dynamics of force and momentum. By combining this information with computer models of the axon, they hope to develop new tools to improve the design of neuroprosthetics. This will allow them to build more effective devices that can help people with various physical disabilities regain their mobility and independence. The work is supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The work is described in the journal Science Advances. The article is available for free download from the journal’s website.