Brain-Machine-Interface Technology Moves Beyond Prosthetics

Miguel Nicolelis, brain-interface expert at Duke Health, has moved one step closer to the realization of his goals in his “Walk Again Project,” with his latest research where two rhesus monkeys controlled robotic wheelchairs using their thoughts alone.

Nicolelis’ research, published in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports, though, as the neuroscientist points out is not about moving electronic wheelchairs, but a step forward the ultimate goal of developing robotic exoskeletons, as he explained to, “We are not focused on the wheelchair—we’re actually developing robotic exoskeletons in parallel to this. But in principle, it could be any kind of vehicle because this is a general purpose approach.” The neuroscience of the brain-machine-interface (BMI) or brain-computer-interface (BCI) has been limited to the use of prosthetics, helpful and expanding the abilities of those with physical disabilities. Nicolelis’s research and its outcomes hold the promise of moving this field beyond prosthetics alone.

The two monkeys used in this research are healthy, fully functional monkeys who have had hundreds of hair-thin microfilaments implanted in their brains by Nicolelis. The monkeys, trained to navigate toward the reward of a bowl of grapes, had their brain activity recorded as they did so. Afterwards, that brain activity was programmed into a computer that translated the signals into corresponding motor activities. Those translated signals then moved the wheelchair according to the previous brain activity.

The research team found that as they continued the experiments with the monkeys and the brain-machine-interface (BMI), the monkeys adapted their adapted their thinking to try and find faster ways to get to the bowl of grapes, thinking that Nicolelis explained wasn’t present in the beginning of the experiment, indicating to him that the monkeys increasingly saw/accepted the wheelchairs as extensions or parts of themselves.

Until this research, there was concern that permanently implanting devices in the human brain necessary for the more complex whole-body movements a robotic exoskeleton requires might need frequent replacement due to wear-and-tear, a concern addressed in this research. Miguel Nicolelis implants the microfilaments seven years ago in the two monkeys involved in this research, with no malfunctions of that system noted.

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