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In the lab, monkeys use brain waves to move a robotic arm

owl monkey with scientist
Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis with an owl monkey and a robot arm which monkeys learned to operate using only their brain signals  

DURHAM, North Carolina (CNN) -- The power of thought may be capable of moving robotic arms, according to researchers who hope one day to develop machines and robots as aids for paralyzed people.

Duke University bioneurologist Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues, in research published in this week's edition of the journal Nature, implanted tiny electrodes into the brains of two owl monkeys, a cat-sized species native to the Amazon region of South America. The goal was to record the signals put out by single nerve cells in the brain.

One of the monkeys had as many as 96 electrodes implanted in its brain for two years.

The researchers hooked the electrodes to a computer that monitored and analyzed the monkey's brain signals as the animals learned simple reaching tasks, like grasping for food.

Find out more about spinal cord injury and paralysis
  • National Spinal Cord Injury Association
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
  • The Foundation for Spinal Cord Injury Prevention, Care & Cure

    This technique, called "multi-neuron population recording," allowed the scientists to record the output of individual nerve cells, or neurons. Computer programs then combined and analyzed that data to better understand and predict how those individual nerve signals work together in the monkey's brain to create thought and hand movement.

    Scientists then connected the computer to a robotic arm that moves in three dimensions in response to the monkeys' brain signals to "grasp for food."

    And demonstrating that brain signals can be transmitted through cyberspace, the researchers also sent the data over a standard Internet connection from the computer at Duke to a robotic arm at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    "The reliability of this system and the long-term viability of the electrodes lead us to believe that this paradigm could eventually be used to help paralyzed people restore some motor function," Nicolelis said in a statement.

    Hoping to learn ways to achieve that, the scientists now plan to move the research to the next level. For the first time, movement of the robotic arm will feed back pressure on the monkeys' skin, essentially allowing them to "feel" it move. The monkeys also will be able to see the arm in motion.

    The scientists hope to gain insight into how paralyzed people could use a "brain-machine" interface to control artificial arms or legs -- or supplement the human body with extra appendages.

    "One most provocative, and controversial, question is whether the brain can actually incorporate a machine as part of its representation of the body," Nicolelis said. "I truly believe that it is possible. The brain is continuously learning and adapting, and previous studies have shown that the body representation in the brain is dynamic. So, if you created a closed feedback loop in which the brain controls a device and the device provides feedback to the brain, I would predict that as people or animals learn to use the device, their brains will basically dedicate neuronal space to represent that device.

    "If such incorporation of artificial devices works," he continued, "it would quite likely be possible to augment our bodies in virtual space in ways that we never thought possible."

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