It might sound like science fiction, but a new experiment very much rooted in reality may help quadriplegics move on their own again — with the aid of robotic exoskeletons. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center attached electrodes to the brains of two monkeys, and trained them to move objects on a computer screen by commanding a virtual arm simply with their minds. Plus, electric sensations could be sent back through the electrodes, convincing the monkeys' brains that they "felt" different textures. The findings, reported in Nature, may have repercussions for people crippled by paralysis. Here, a brief guide:
How did the monkeys' brains "feel"?
It's complicated. Setups that sent information one way — say, from a monkey brain to a machine — already existed. But new improvements have allowed the technology to send data both ways — simultaneously tapping into the motor cortex (which allowed the monkeys to move the virtual arm) and the somatosensory cortex (which let them experience touch). In other words: It let them move objects and feel using nothing more than their brains.
Why is it important?
Eventually, it may be possible to apply this technology to robotic exoskeleton suits driven by a brain-machine interface that would help handicapped people walk. Professor Miguel Nicolelis, who spearheaded the study, says that "it's almost like creating a new sensory channel through which the brain can resume processing information," bypassing damaged nerves that render people immobile.
How would the exoskeleton work?
The hypothetical prosthetic would process all types of sensory information, Nicolesis says, like the temperature and touch from a warm cup of coffee. Indeed, "for a person with a spinal cord injury, sending such orchestrated bursts of electrical information to the brain could do more than allow a patient who has lost sensation to experience the pleasures of touch again,"says Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times. "It could provide the necessary sensory feedback for the user of a prosthetic walker to navigate uneven terrain and steer clear of dangers such as hot or slippery surfaces."
How soon till this becomes a reality?
Soon. Healy says that Nicolelis and his team, which includes engineers and physiologists from all over the world, want to send a young quadriplegic to midfield to open the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — assisted by one of their "fantastical" exoskeletons. "We are trying to provide the patient with a new body," he says. "It would be just like a car...only a little tighter."