A few years ago, neuroscientists working at Duke University implemented an experimental version of the ultimate computer user interface. By designing a way to directly link the brains of monkeys to artificial devices, these researchers created the first real-time brain-machine interface (BMI). This BMI utilizes the concurrent electrical activity, produced by hundreds of brain cells located in the primate cortex, to directly control the movements of a variety of robots, including a multi-degree of freedom prosthetic arm. Thus, by learning to operate this BMI, monkeys were capable of enacting their voluntary motor intentions simply by thinking what type of arm movement they wanted to produce.
No need to move their own biological arms. Just thinking did the trick. Indeed, these monkeys became so proficient in operating this BMI that they soon used it to play a variety of video games. Just by imagining the movements needed to move a computer cursor, they were able to direct a multi-degree of freedom robot arm to execute the maneuvers needed to play the game. No hand or arm movements required.
This achievement demonstrates not only that modern brain research is fast becoming the ultimate multidisciplinary field of inquiry of our time, but that future computer-user interfaces designed by industry, surprising as it may sound, may benefit from a better understanding of the way neural circuits operate in our very own brains.
Thus, by creating a project carried out by a worldwide network of neuroscientists, we intend to showcase the amazing power that a partnership between modern neuroscience and the leading edge of the computer industry could unleash in coming years.
The long-term goal of our project is to develop and implement a BMI like the one developed at Duke University to allow severely paralyzed patients to regain mobility and control of their arms and hands. That would be achieved through a neuroprosthetic device that allows patients to use their own brain activity to direct the movements of a wearable robot exoskeleton designed to sustain and carry their body. Such an endeavor aims at improving the quality of life of millions of people worldwide and creating a new paradigm for global scientific collaborations between academia and industry, one in which science becomes a powerful agent for social and educational transformation.
For the most recent developments in BMI research at Duke University, see "Monkey’s Thoughts Propel Robot, a Step That May Help Humans" in the New York Times.