What does your brain tell your hand when you want to pick up an object? Brown neuroscientists believe they now have a firmer grasp on the answer.

Neurons in the area of the brain responsible for planning a grasping motion retain information about the object you’re reaching for as they plan what signals to send to your hand. The collective neural activity therefore looks different when executing the same grip on one object versus another. “You can have the same movement resulting from very different activity patterns within the context of different objects,” says neuroscience investigator Carlos Vargas-Irwin, who works with John Donoghue, the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor of Neuroscience and Engineering.

The breakthrough, scientists say, could lead to better brain-computer interfaces for providing severely paralyzed people with a way to control robotic arms and hands using only their thoughts. Vargas-Irwin says demonstrating that the brain can produce a variety of activity patterns and still arrive at an appropriate grip plan suggests the brain is flexible enough to handle a wide variety of object contexts and can do so with a local network of neurons.

The findings were reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.