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Last updated on April 21, 2014 at 12:39 EDT

Master Monkey Uses Thoughts To Control Paralyzed Monkey

February 19, 2014
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

In a research project inspired by the movie “Avatar,” scientists from Cornell University and Harvard Medical School have designed a system that allows one monkey to control the paralyzed body of another monkey using only thoughts, according to a newly published report in the journal Nature Communications.

The study team said they hope their research will eventually allow for paralyzed individuals to regain control of their body.

“The goal is to take people with brain stem or spinal cord paralysis and bypass the injury,” study author Ziv Williams, from Harvard, told James Gallagher of BBC News.

For the study, the researchers connected the brain of one monkey to the spinal cord of another with electrodes. A computer between the two primates decoded and relayed neural transmissions from one to the other.

The first monkey, referred to as the ‘master’, was placed in a special chair in front of a computer screen showing a cursor and a green ‘target’ circle that switched between two locations. The second animal, or ‘avatar’, was fully sedated in an individual enclosure with its arm strapped to a joystick.

This joystick allowed the master to move the cursor of a computer screen and chase the circular objective to one of two locations. As the ‘master’ thought of moving the cursor, its neural signals were decoded to find out which of the two locations it was thinking about. The cognitive data was relayed in actual time to the spinal-cord of the avatar, which moved its arm as directed by the master.

When the cursor hit its target, the master received a squirt of juice as reward. In 98 percent of the trials, the master could effectively control the avatar’s arm.

“The hope is ultimately to get completely natural movement, I think it’s theoretically possible, but it will require an exponential additional effort to get to that point,” Williams said.

Some may worry about pathological uses for this technology, but Christopher James, of the University of Warwick, dismissed the idea of a dystopian future where people could control the bodies of others by using their thoughts.

“Some people may be concerned this might mean someone taking over control of someone else’s body, but the risk of this is a no-brainer,” he said. “Whilst the control of limbs is sophisticated, it is still rather crude overall, plus of course in an able-bodied person their own control over their limbs remains anyway, so no-one is going to control anyone else’s body against their wishes any time soon.”

James added that the new development was “very important research [with profound implications] especially for controlling limbs in spinal cord injury, or controlling prosthetic limbs with limb amputees.”

One major challenge facing doctors looking to cure paralysis is the fact that the muscles of people suffering from the condition tend to become more rigid. Oscillating blood pressure could also complicate restoring control to once-paralyzed limbs.

“The work is a key step forward that demonstrates the potential of brain machine interfaces to be used in restoring purposeful movement to people affected by paralysis,” said Bernard Conway, head of biomedical engineering at the University of Strathclyde. “However, significant work still remains to be done before this technology will be able to be offered to the people who need it.”


Source: Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online