Monkeys manoeuvre wheelchairs with thoughts

Neuroscientists in the US have developed a brain-machine interface (BMI) that allows primates to navigate a robotic wheelchair using their thoughts.

monkey brainwaves

The BMI is said to use signals from hundreds of neurons recorded simultaneously in two regions of the monkeys’ brains that are involved in movement and sensation. As the animals think about moving toward their goal — a bowl containing grapes — computers translate their brain activity into real-time operation of the wheelchair.

The interface, developed at Duke Health in North Carolina and described in Scientific Reports, demonstrates the future potential for people with disabilities who have lost most muscle control and mobility due to quadriplegia or ALS, said senior author Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., co-director for the Duke Center for Neuroengineering.

“In some severely disabled people, even blinking is not possible,” Nicolelis said. “For them, using a wheelchair or device controlled by non-invasive measures like an EEG [which monitors brain waves through electrodes on the scalp] may not be sufficient. We show clearly that if you have intracranial implants, you get better control of a wheelchair than with non-invasive devices.”

Scientists began the experiments in 2012, implanting hundreds of microfilaments in the premotor and somatosensory regions of the brains of two rhesus macaques. They trained the animals by passively navigating the chair toward their goal. During this training phase, the scientists recorded the primates’ large-scale electrical brain activity. The researchers then programmed a computer system to translate brain signals into digital motor commands that controlled the movements of the wheelchair.

As the monkeys learned to control the wheelchair just by thinking, they became more efficient at navigating toward the grapes and completed the trials faster, Nicolelis said.

In addition to observing brain signals that corresponded to translational and rotational movement, the Duke team also discovered that primates’ brain signals showed signs they were contemplating their distance to the bowl of grapes.

“This was not a signal that was present in the beginning of the training, but something that emerged as an effect of the monkeys becoming proficient in this task,” Nicolelis said. “This was a surprise. It demonstrates the brain’s enormous flexibility to assimilate a device, in this case a wheelchair, and that device’s spatial relationships to the surrounding world.”

The trials measured the activity of nearly 300 neurons in each of the two monkeys. The Nicolelis lab previously reported the ability to record up to 2,000 neurons using the same technique. The team now hopes to expand the experiment by recording more neuronal signals to continue to increase the accuracy and fidelity of the primate BMI before seeking trials for an implanted device in humans, he said.

The US National Institutes of Health funded this study. The Itau Bank of Brazil provided research support to the study as part of the Walk Again Project, an international non-profit consortium aimed at developing new assistive technologies for severely paralyzed patients.