For paraplegics, one of the most exciting prospects is an exo-skeleton that they would be able to control with their mind. It would allow the paralyzed to not only walk and move on their own accord, but give them a new lease of freedom they would otherwise be denied. Scientists from the Duke University Centre for Neuroengineering in North Carolina have made a breakthrough in this field by training monkeys to control virtual arms on a computer with just their brain.

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In an article in the journal Nature, the team describe how the monkeys were able to use the virtual arm to sense the texture of different virtual objects. This means paraplegics could not only move, but experience touch as well.

The rhesus monkeys were trained to control the arm solely by electrical activity generated in their brains. As if they were moving their regular arm, the monkeys were able to send out signals to control the arm while simultaneously getting electrical feedback to understand the texture of the objects that were touched.

Speaking about the research to the BBC, Professor Miguel Nicolelis said, “It provides us with the demonstration that we can establish a bi-directional link between the brain and an artificial device without any interference from the subject’s body.”

The monkeys, named Mango and Tangerine, also learned to play a video game with the virtual arm, where they had to capture three separate targets. Each target was identifiable by a different joystick vibration.

Of course there will be many who disagree with the use of monkeys in such experiments, especially as multiple electrodes were implanted in their brains and connected to the computer screen. However, these electrodes allowed the monkeys to then control the motor functions of the arm.

“We have an interface for 600 channels of brain signal transmission, so we can transmit 600 channels of brain activity wirelessly as if you had 600 cell phones broadcasting this activity. For patients this will be very important because there will be no cables whatsoever connecting the patient to any equipment.”

The team is now working on a exo-skeleton that would be controlled by the user via sensory feedback. “When the patient commands this vest to move, it will not only carry their body it will provide the sensory feedback so that they know if they are stepping or walking or grabbing objects,” Nicolelis explained.

The University is leading the Walk Again project, which is hoping to see the development of a fully operational exo-skeleton by 2016 that will be demonstrated at the Olympic Games. This technology would enable thousands of paralyzed people to move and touch again.

Of course, it could also see monkeys controlling exo-skeletons with their minds – we’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes! The results could be disastrous.

+ Nature Journal

Via BBC News