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5/29/2008
11:49 AM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin
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Cybernetic Monkeys Offer Hope To Human Invalids

The New York Times has a front-page story today about a group of monkeys who have learned to move robotic arms using only their thoughts, using tiny sensors in their brains called neural interfaces.

The New York Times has a front-page story today about a group of monkeys who have learned to move robotic arms using only their thoughts, using tiny sensors in their brains called neural interfaces.The blogosphere has treated this as a major breakthrough. In fact, as I reported in a March 2005 feature for Wired, research into neural interfaces and brain-controlled prostheses has been going on for more than a decade -- and the systems already have been used by humans.

I spent time with Matt Nagle, a young quadriplegic with a brain implant who'd learned to manipulate a computer cursor using his thoughts. The implant was designed by John P. Donoghue, director of the Institute of Brain Science at Brown University and the leading American researcher into reading and translating into physical movement the brain's neural activity.

Donoghue's company, Cyberkinetics, is working on portable devices that can bypass the central nervous system altogether, giving paralyzed or otherwise disabled people back the use of their limbs. As I pointed out at the time, once you can control a cursor you can do almost anything -- including piloting a battleship.

In a Massachusetts hospital room I played a game of Pong with Nagle, who literally cannot lift a finger. He beat me.

"A bundle of wires as thick as a coaxial cable runs from a connector in Nagle's scalp to a refrigerator-sized cart of electronic gear," I wrote in Wired. "Inside his brain, a tiny array of microelectrodes picks up the cacophony of his neural activity; processors recognize the patterns associated with arm motions and translate them into signals that control the Pong paddle, draw with a cursor, operate a TV, and open e-mail."

Neural interfaces have some scary sci-fi possible applications, like robotic warriors piloted instantaneously by cybernetic soldiers with chips in their brains. But for severely injured patients like many of the troops returning from Iraq, they offer a glimmer of future hope of a more normal life. The Times story (based on a forthcoming article in Nature) "is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology." Researchers like Donoghue and the scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon who conducted the monkey experiments should get all the funding they require, tomorrow.

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