Mind Control

Monkeys more a virtual hand in landmark demonstration of brain-machine interaction
November 30, 2011
Think again

Virtual guidance: Monkeys learn to use signals from their brains to navigate an avatar hand to select a specifc target.
Solaiman Shokur

Not long ago, the idea that humans could control objects using their thoughts seemed locked up in the realm of science fiction. But at Duke's Center for Neuroengineering, the concept is taking small steps toward reality.

The latest breakthrough involves two rhesus monkeys that researchers at the center have trained to move an avatar hand using only the electrical activity in their brains. The researchers implanted electrodes in a region of the monkeys' brains that controls movement, enabling them to navigate the virtual hand with their thoughts. When the monkeys "touched" a series of virtual objects, another set of electrodes delivered impulses to parts of the brain that process sensory information. Tests showed the monkeys could recognize that the objects had different textures.

While the experiment has generated plenty of jokes about mind-controlling monkeys, its implications are serious. Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology and the project's lead researcher, says it represents a critical step toward restoring the ability to move and feel for people who have been paralyzed.

Nicolelis envisions a robotic exoskeleton that patients could wear to move autonomously and manipulate objects with their brainwaves. Sensors distributed across the exoskeleton would generate signals about an object's texture and temperature. Nicolelis' team, which includes scientists in Brazil, Switzerland, and Germany, is trying to complete a working model of the exoskeleton in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which will be played in Nicolelis's native Brazil.

"The remarkable success with nonhuman primates is what makes us believe that humans could accomplish the same task much more easily in the near future," he says.