06 October 2011

Monkeys use brain power, not hands, to 'move' virtual objects

Researchers say findings from animal study might help quadriplegic patients some day.


Scientists who taught monkeys to use their brains to move the virtual hands of an avatar (a virtual body) and to identify the texture of virtual objects say the experiment demonstrates the potential benefits of this technology for people who've suffered crippling spinal injuries.

"Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton," study leader Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Centre and co-director of the Duke Centre for Neuroengineering, said in a university news release.

The two monkeys learned how to use only their electrical brain activity to direct the virtual hands of an avatar to the surface of virtual objects. The monkeys were also able to differentiate the textures of the virtual objects.

The virtual objects were visually identical, but had different textures. These textures could only be detected through the virtual hands. No part of the monkeys' real bodies were involved in the operation of the brain-machine-brain interface, according to the release.

The study appears in the Oct. 5 issue of the journal Nature.

"This is the first demonstration of a brain-machine-brain interface (BMBI) that establishes a direct, bidirectional link between a brain and a virtual body," Nicolelis said in the release. "In this BMBI, the virtual body is controlled directly by the animal's brain activity, while its virtual hand generates tactile feedback information that is signaled via direct electrical microstimulation of another region of the animal's cortex.

"We hope that in the next few years this technology could help to restore a more autonomous life to many patients who are currently locked in without being able to move or experience any tactile sensation of the surrounding world," Nicolelis added.

The study was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. - (HealthDay News, October 2011)

More information

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers an overview of spinal fractures.

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