Monkeys Steer Wheelchairs With Their Brains, Raising Hope for Paralyzed People

Monkeys Steer WheelchairsA rhesus macaque walks with the aid of a pneumatically powered exoskeleton controlled by a computer reading signals from electrodes implanted in the monkey’s motor cortex. Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues at Duke University are developing similar devices that could allow paralyzed humans to walk again.Experimental wheelchairs and exoskeletons controlled by thought alone offer surprising insights into the brain, neuroscientists reported on Monday.

Best known for his experimental exoskeleton that helped a paralyzed man kick the opening ball for June’s World Cup in Brazil, Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis presented the latest “brain-machine interface” findings from his team’s “Walk Again Project” at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.

“Some of our patients say they feel they are walking on sand,” says Nicolelis, describing pilot research in which eight paralyzed patients walked using a robotic exoskeleton that moved in response to readings of the patients’ brain waves. “We are actually fooling the brain of patients to think it is not a machine carrying them, but they feel they are themselves walking forward.”

Insights into the brains of paralyzed patients are helping to drive the technology as well as leading to new discoveries, says neuroscientist Eberhard Fetz of the University of Washington in Seattle. Roughly 130,000 people yearly suffer spinal cord injuries worldwide, and for more than a decade, researchers have sought to help these patients using robotic interfaces with the brain. After years of advances, efforts such as the exoskeleton are moving into the earliest stages of medical testing in patient volunteers.

“For patients, they are probably not coming fast fast enough,” Fetz says. “But brain-machine interfaces are giving us results producing a basic understanding of neural mechanisms. That is going to happen in parallel with developing these as tools to benefit patients.”

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