A group of researchers at Duke University have developed a brain-to-computer interface that allows lab monkeys to remotely move around a robotic wheelchair in a feat designed to give new hope to paraplegics.
The newly developed interface can convert the lab animals’ thoughts into electric pulses that are further converted into movement by the computer embedded in the wheelchairs. A research paper on the work was published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, co-author of the paper and head of the Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering, explained that the new device could soon help severely disabled humans to regain functionality.
Nicolelis noted that some paraplegics are so disabled that they can not even blink. So for them, a robotic wheelchair that could be manipulated through their brain waves alone would not be enough.
According to Nicolelis, these people require a technology that does not imply electrodes placed on their scalp. The researcher believes that brain implants would be best suited for the severely disabled.
With help from those implants, patients could grasp a better control over their wheelchairs than with a noninvasive technology. The Duke team was able to train two macaque monkeys to redirect a wheelchair toward a bowl containing fruits.
The team designed a computer algorithm that can convert specific brain waves into digital commands of movement for the wheelchair. Researchers noted that the monkeys became more skilled at manipulating the device the more attempts they had to move it to the fruits.
Brain scans showed that the animals could estimate the distance between the wheelchair and the fruits. Nicolelis underscored that the monkeys did not have this skill when the training began. But they seem to have acquired it as they became more “proficient” in their training. You can see the device and monkeys here:
Scientists also noted that the recent experiment clearly demonstrates the brain’s plasticity in integrating a device and the spatial relationships between that particular device and the neighboring objects.
The team, on the other hand, acknowledged that the monkey’s brains are different from people’s brains so they do not expect to have identical results in human trials. In the meantime, scientists will continue the experiments on lab monkeys before considering switching to human participants.
Yet, this is not the first time neuroscientists tweak the brain in attempt to restore lost functions. Last fall, a team of John Hopkins researchers were able to restore the sense of touch to a paraplegic’s mechanical hand by wiring the device to the patient’s sensory cortex.
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