Monkey Think, Wheelchair Do

The internet is home to the greatest collection of animal videos known to humankind, and includes such timeless classics as the sneezing panda and dramatic hamster. My personal favorites are the puppy who sings to his birthday card and the bird that sings “Bodies” by Drowning Pool. Today, I bring you yet another awesome video:

What you just saw (assuming you clicked on the link) is a monkey navigating a wheelchair towards a tray of grapes, using only its mind. Now, the Duke University researchers aren’t just “doing it for the Vine”, their ultimate goal is to enable paralyzed patients to walk once again. Getting a monkey to control a wheelchair with only its mind is just the first step.

So how exactly does a monkey control a wheelchair with its mind?

Let’s back up and take a look at the brain. Since it works through electrical signals, the researchers first had to find the signals involved with the monkey’s desire to get from Point A (wheelchair) to Point B (delicious grapes on a tray across the room). To do so, they  implanted electrodes into the section of monkey brain that controls movement, and analyzed the electrical signals of nearly 300 neurons. Initially, the researchers remote-controlled the wheelchair themselves to follow specific routes and recorded the monkey’s brain activity as its wheelchair traveled to the tray. By doing this, the monkey associated these specific movement routes with getting a tasty treat. After repeating this enough times, the scientists were able to match certain electrical patterns in the brain to certain movements of the wheelchair. Using this information, they then programmed a computer to respond to these signals accordingly, so that the wheelchair moves in the direction the monkey is thinking of.

Technology like this is actually nothing new. Researchers have already successfully shown that a monkey can control a robotic arm , and move it in all three dimensions to receive a treat – in yet another fantastic video. Moreover, devices already exist that enable paralyzed humans to control robotic limbs with just their mind. For example, the ceremonial first kick of the 2014 FIFA World Cup featured a paralyzed patient mind-controlling their robotic leg to kick the ball. However, the issue with these devices is that they’re bulky and rely on non-invasive brain imagery, which can produce imprecise movements in the target robotic limb. By implanting electrodes into the brain, a minimally invasive procedure, Duke researchers produced much more precise movements. What makes the wheelchair study even more groundbreaking was an unexpected discovery: they were able to detect distinct patterns of brain activity that corresponded with the distance to a target. This can only serve to make such devices even more accurate than previously imagined.

The next step will be to test this technology in human beings. The good news is that this technology should be easy for humans to adapt to. While humans can’t effectively communicate with monkeys, we can clearly communicate with each other very well. Instead of forcing a monkey to think about moving its wheelchair towards a bowl because it’s filled with tasty grapes, we can simply just ask a human patient to think about moving in certain directions to look at the associated brain activity. All that being said, there is still one major caveat. To accurately detect the electrical patterns of a human brain would require thousands of electrodes, not just the 300 used in the monkey study. Therefore, scientists will need to develop a suitable surgical implant that do this before humans can begin moving wheelchairs with their minds.

So while monkeys moving wheelchairs with their minds makes for quality internet content, the implications of such a video are enormous. Through successful experiments like this one, we are getting ever closer to making life easier for people with paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. Developing a way for these patients to accurately move themselves around just by thinking about it could change lives.

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