Rhesus macaques taught to control wheelchairs by thought alone

From Professor Miguel Nicolelis’ lab at Duke University in North Carolina – the team of researchers behind the exoskeleton which enabled a paraplegic patient to kick off the 2014 football World Cup – now comes news of two rhesus macaques which have been taught to control a wheelchair using thought alone. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday.

Brain signals from one of the rhesus macaques involved in the study. Image: Shawn Rocco/ Duke Health

Brain signals from one of the rhesus macaques involved in the study. Image: Shawn Rocco/ Duke Health

The monkeys both had a wireless brain implant that picks up signals to do with movement and sensation. These signals were then converted in order to control a motorised wheelchair. The animals could move forward as well as turn and reverse, in order to reach a grape dispenser.

This study is a step forward in the field of brain-machine interfaces: previously, such research focused on moving cursors on computer screens, or robotic arms. Being able to move a wheelchair by normal pre-motor planning thought would be a huge step forward to improve the lives of paralysed patients.

Dr Andrew Jackson of the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University, who was not involved in the study, said in the Guardian: “This seems like a slightly far-fetched science fiction thing going on in the lab with monkeys, but there are actually a number of people now who have had very similar implants. The stuff that is going on in the lab with monkeys is the technology that could be used in people in a relatively small number of years.”


Video: Duke Health, obtained via Scientific Reports

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