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Monkeys Learn to Drive Wheelchairs Using Their Thoughts

Posted by ROLAND REZNIK on May 19, 2016. 0 Comments

Duke Health Neuroscientists released details related to their newest brain-machine interface that allows primates to use their thoughts to navigate a wheelchair. The brain-machine interface, also known as BMI, is a breakthrough for those who have ALS or have lost muscle control for other reasons. Quadriplegics are especially expected to benefit from this innovative invention.

The BMI focuses on two specific regions of the brain that involve sensation and movement. The interface receives signals from hundreds of neurons that are simultaneously recorded. The BMI translates brain activity and makes the wheelchair operate in real-time. Monkeys were used for the experiment and the testing was successful.

According to Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering, “Even blinking is impossible for some severely disabled people. Sometimes an EEG is not helpful even though it monitors brain waves through electrodes on the scalp. Our invention clearly shows intracranial implants allow the user to have better control of the wheelchair when compared to noninvasive devices like the EEG.”

In 2012, scientists began implanting more than a hundred hair-thin microfilaments in the somatosensory and premotor regions of the brains of two monkeys. The scientists then trained the primates to navigate the chair toward a specific goal. Often this goal was a bowl of grapes on a nearby table. Researchers programmed a computer system to translate the monkey’s brain signals into commands that controlled the movements of the wheelchair.

During the experiment, the monkeys quickly became efficient at navigating the wheelchair by using their thoughts. As the researchers continued monitoring the monkeys they discovered the brain signals were revealing that the primates were contemplating the distance to the desired goal. According to Nicolelis, “This signal was not present in the beginning of the experiment, it emerged as the monkeys became more proficient in completing their task.” Researchers were surprised as the results demonstrated the brain's ability to assimilate a device.

The results of this study are inspiring and encouraging. Previous trials had reported measuring 300 neurons in each of the monkeys. However, the Nicolelis lab reported the capability of recording almost 2,000 neurons. Due to this impressive news, the Duke team is focusing on expanding the experiment. They plan to record more neuronal signals from the same two monkeys. Researchers are hoping to increase fidelity and accuracy of the monkeys BMI. Once the team achieves their goals, they will begin seeking trials for an implanted device for humans.

During this trial, the primates both became increasingly accurate during their training sessions. The results revealed the more the monkeys practiced, the better they got at navigating the wheelchair. Once extensive research and trials are complete, humans will have the same opportunity. This research gives those with extreme disabilities hope that they will one day operate a wheelchair by simply thinking about it.

The Duke team eagerly continues their research and testing related to the experiment. The public waits anxiously for this highly beneficial invention that will provide freedom for people with disabilities who don’t have it at the current time.

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