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The fast macaque monkeys quickly learned to grab treats with their new mechanical arm. What was surprising was the advanced natural motions they developed.  (Source: Andrew Schwartz/University of Pittsburgh)
An outlandish experiment is breaking exciting ground in the world of brain controlled prosthetics

While the jury is still out on whether monkeys deserve human rights, one thing's for sure -- they're good at controlling robotic arms.  In the past, humans have been able to control a computer mouse with brain signals.  In more recent DARPA grant research, prosthetic arms have been implanted in humans with basic control from electrodes on skin or electrodes implanted in muscle.  However, without directly interfacing with nerves, preferably near the brain, it is impossible to gain the fluid motion that human limbs have according to the current line of thought.

Researchers at Caltech recently made breakthroughs in repositionable neural probes, which will help such brain connections be made.  Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have taken the next step and for the first time ever have showcased the use of one of these nerve interfaced limbs with a nonhuman primate.

The researchers selected monkeys for the study due to their anatomical similarities to humans and their strong capacity to learn.  In the experiment, two Macaque monkeys were initially allowed to play with a joystick to get the feel for the basic capabilities of their new mechanical arm.  The arm featured shoulder joints, an elbow joint, and a two-fingered grasping claw.

Afterwards, a grid of electrodes the size of freckles were implanted just beneath the monkeys' skulls on their motor cortex.  The grid contained 100 electrodes and was placed on a section of the brain known to signal hand and arm movements.  Each electrode connected to a separate neuron, and the signals ran back out of the brain via wire to computers for processing.

The device collected the firings on the neurons and used it to generate a movement response which was sent to the arm.  The monkeys quickly learned from this biofeedback how to perform basic arm movements.  Within several days the monkey needed no assistance.  Sitting motionless they moved the arm like a normal limb, using it to delicate pick up small objects like grapes, marshmallows, and other chewy nuggets which were held in front of them.  Over two-thirds of the time the goodies found their way to the hungry little monkeys' mouths.

The monkeys learned to approach the morsel with an open "hand", to close the hand, and to slowly release as they bit into it.  They shocked researchers showcasing advanced movements, such as using one finger to pick up a sticky item by poking it, keeping the hand open.  They also would bring their arm by their mouth to lick clean, and would use it push morsels of food dangling from their mouth back in.  Researchers wrote that these were "displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment".

Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh and senior author of the paper on the research states, "In the real world, things don’t work as expected.  The marshmallow sticks to your hand or the food slips, and you can’t program a computer to anticipate all of that.  But the monkeys’ brains adjusted. They were licking the marshmallow off the prosthetic gripper, pushing food into their mouth, as if it were their own hand."

The new paper, released in the online journal Nature, is coauthored by Meel Velliste, Sagi Perel, M. Chance Spalding and Andrew Whitford.  The paper demonstrates that human brain-controlled prosthetics while not affordable in cost or difficulty, are technically feasible, or within reach.

Says expert Dr. William Heetderks, director of the extramural science program at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, "This study really pulls together all the pieces from earlier work and provides a clear demonstration of what’s possible."

Another expert, Dr. John P. Donoghue, director of the Institute of Brain Science at Brown University commented that the paper is "important because it’s the most comprehensive study showing how an animal interacts with complex objects, using only brain activity."

One major problem that remains is that brain electrode grids currently fail within months for unknown reasons.  Furthermore, the system is cumbersome and needs calibration.  Also, so far a safe wireless interface has not been demonstrated, necessitating wires through the scalp.  However the researchers are striving ahead, looking for solution to each of these problems.

Dr. John F. Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal in an accompanying article in the Nature journal says that once the bugs have been resolved, researchers may be able to find other areas of the brain to give the limbs even more delicate response.  Kalaska says such possible future systems, "would allow patients with severe motor deficits to interact and communicate with the world not only by the moment-to-moment control of the motion of robotic devices, but also in a more natural and intuitive manner that reflects their overall goals, needs and preferences."

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By MozeeToby on 5/30/2008 1:31:53 PM , Rating: 2
why dont you listen to those gut feelings once in awhile?
Ok, I will.

My gut feelings tell me that my grandmother, mother, and aunt would almost assuredly have died of cancer years ago if not for animal experimentation.

There are problems that occur with animal research; I don't deny that many, many horrible things have been done and that a few horrible things continue to be done in the name of science. However, this research is not one of them.

This research has also been performed on human beings (with a computer pointer being moved instead of an arm) with no adverse effects. The only new information being described in the article is the "natural" movements of the arm, not the electrodes or the brain-computer interface.

Stop, take a deap breath and think about what you are saying to people before you get angry. Many, many lives have been saved thanks to animal research, almost assuredly including close personal friends and relatives of yours.

Someday (if it hasn't happened already), you will need a treatment that was developed on animals to save your life or cure a disease; will you turn down the treatment in protest? For that matter, do you read all your shampoo bottles, household cleansers, and acne medication to ensure that it wasn't tested on animals?

By MrJustin5 on 6/19/2008 5:59:07 AM , Rating: 2

Ok, MozeeToby!

Lets say it DOES save some lives and that your Mother, Grandmother and aunt were all saved my miracle cancer curing drugs. Question: Did ALL of those relatives get cancer? Was the cancer eliminated? Did you know you are 6 times more likely to DIE from cancer CAUSED by Chemotherapy than the cancer it "cured"? Yes, look it up.

Lets take a look at the 1930's. 1 out of 33 people died of CANCER.

Lets look at today. 1 out of 3 people DIE of cancer. Soon it will be 1 out of 2.

It is due to all the chemicals in electronic equipment, the bottled water you drink, the air you breath, the car you own, the petro-chemical industry. To microwavable food you just ate sitting in carcinogenic microwavable plastic tray you ate out of. Its from the THOUSANDS of nuclear tests done since the 1940's. Its from the Nuke Power Plants. Its from Electromagnetic radiation, cell phone towers, cell phones themselves (YES the studies are out there! HUNDREDS of studies - your little cell phone causes brain cancer in the exact area you had it pressed against your head).

So why dont we ELIMINATE the causes of cancer FIRST and then try to cure what is left over. By that point, the war on cancer is over because it has been virtually defeated through PREVENTION.

You see, its an endless struggle with literally NO END to FIGHT a disease or condition once it has occurred. It is all about PREVENTION. Its common sense.

Facts are.. if diseases and cancers are PREVENTED from occurring... these mega-huge pharmaceutical drug cartels wont have any drugs to push and wont have much money to make.

I rest my case vs MozeeToby.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls

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