Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have used a monkey's brain activity to control a robot on the other side of the globe.
In what researchers tout as a first-of-its-kind experiment, monkeys' thoughts controlled the walking patterns of a robot in Japan.
"They can walk in complete synchronization," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, who also is the Anne W. Deane Professor of Neuroscience at Duke. "The most stunning finding is that when we stopped the treadmill and the monkey ceased to move its legs, it was able to sustain the locomotion of the robot for a few minutes -- just by thinking -- using only the visual feedback of the robot in Japan."
Implanted electrodes gathered feedback from brain cells of two rhesus monkeys as they walked forward and backward at different paces on a treadmill. Sensors on the monkeys' legs tracked walking patterns while researchers used math models to analyze the relationship between leg movement and activity in the brain's motor and sensory cortex. From there, researchers in North Carolina and Japan determined how well brain cell activity predicted speed and stride.
"We found that certain neurons in multiple areas of the brain fire at different phases and at varying frequency, depending on their role in controlling the complex, multi-muscle process of motion," senior research investigator Nicolelis said in a statement.
Researchers recorded brain activity, predicted the pattern of locomotion, and sent the signal from the motor commands of the animal to the robot, he said.
"We also created a real-time transmission of information that allowed the brain activity of the monkey in North Carolina to control the commands of a robot in Japan," Nicolelis said. "Each neuron provides us with a small piece of the puzzle that we compile to predict the walking pattern of the monkeys with high accuracy."
The research, funded by the Anne W. Deane Endowed Chair Fund, expanded on previous experiments in Nicolelis' laboratory that showed monkeys could control the reaching and grasping movements of a robotic arm with their brain signals. Researchers believe that, within a year, their latest work will be used to develop prototypes of robotic leg braces for human use. They hope that robotic braces can help severely paralyzed patients walk again.
"In essence, we are seeking to capture the information that the foot sends to your brain when it touches the ground as you walk," Nicolelis said.
Mitsuo Kawato, M.E., Ph.D., director of ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories and research director of the Computational Brain Project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, said the findings will be used to advance research on how the brain processes information.