Monkeys Control Wheelchairs with Thoughts
The headline may seem absurd at first, but the truth is that it barely does justice to the almost-beyond-belief advancement announced in a new study published in Scientific Reports.
Neuroscientists from Duke University's Center for Neuroengineering have successfully endowed monkeys with the ability to move robotic wheelchairs using thought alone. The interface between brain and machine utilizes signals from neurons in two regions of the monkey’s brain specifically involved with sensation and movement.
The study authors point out that for some severely disabled people, using a wheelchair or device controlled by noninvasive measures like an EEG (a device that monitors brain waves through electrodes on the scalp) may not be sufficient. For those individuals, intracranial implants could offer a more practical option.
Beginning in 2012, researchers trained monkeys to navigate a wheelchair towards a goal: a bowl of grapes. All the while, the scientists monitored the monkeys’ brain activity. A computer system then translated the brain signals into digital motor commands capable of controlling the wheelchair’s movements.
As the monkeys’ proficiency at controlling the wheelchair improved, the scientists saw brain signals that showed the monkeys were thinking about the distance between them and the grapes. That surprised the study team because it demonstrated the brain’s enormous flexibility to assimilate a device, in this case a wheelchair.
The researchers note in their study that brain-machine interface will likely have a profound clinical impact, and improve mobility for the disabled. According to Popular Science, the surgery to install the device is minimally invasive and some implants have been left in a monkey’s brain for seven years.