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Being able to control objects by simply thinking about them has long been the realm of science fiction, but a few smart monkeys are inching it toward reality. For the first time, neurobiologists have successfully demonstrated two-way interaction between a primate brain and a machine interface.
The goal for the monkeys was to touch the one object that they sensed was different by moving a virtual arm across a computer screen using only their minds. When they virtually touched the correct object, they were rewarded with juice. After several initial attempts, the monkeys started consistently picking the correct object, behavior that was proven not to be random. While the experiment was going on, the neuroengineers used the implants to record the monkeys' sensing and decision-making in real time. The ability to record and sense brain activity in real time is a necessary step in the development of brain-controlled prosthetics. In order to work effectively, these devices must mimic the natural feedback and response between the brain and the limbs that occurs in people who aren't paralyzed.
At the University of Chicago, Nicholas Hatsopoulos is an associate professor of organismal biology and anatomy with a focus on researching neural prosthetic systems. Robotic exoskeletons bring Iron Man’s powerful suit to mind. “In the movie he gets into this suit, and he’s using arms and hands to control this thing,” he says. “But imagine controlling it with your brain.”
Researchers worldwide are hard at work developing devices that would work a bit like Luke Skywalker's prosthetic hand in the 1980 film "The Empire Strikes Back." After losing his hand in a light-saber duel, the fictional Jedi gets a new limb with all the functionality of his original hand.
The closest thing to Skywalker's hand today is the Defense Advance Research Project Agency's (DARPA) brain-controlled robotic arm, which is scheduled for human testing in about a year. The arm can bend and twist much like a natural limb and is controlled by electrodes implanted into the brain. The electrodes translate electrical activity from brain cells into commands for the arm, transmitted via wireless signal. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies] But the trick to getting devices like the DARPA arm to work, Bensmaia said, is getting the false limb to talk back to the brain. An arm, for example, can move in so many directions and take so many forms that it's simply not possible to control such movements efficiently based on sight alone. You need to be able to feel what the arm is doing. But while scientists have made great strides in hooking brain signals up to robotics to create motor movement, the sensory side has lagged behind.
The goal, Nicolelis said, is to have the exoskeleton ready in three years — in time for the 2014 World Cup in his home nation of Brazil. "We think we can do this in the next three years or so," Nicolelis said. "We are hoping that a teenager who was quadriplegic until then will be able to walk into the opening game and kick the opening ball of the World Cup."