The researcher who figured out how monkeys could manipulate virtual objects turns to a new challenge: helping quadriplegics walk by 2014
In the latest of a series of science fiction-like advances over the last few years, researchers from Duke University have discovered a way to allow monkeys not only to manipulate virtual objects but to detect texture with a virtual arm. This research is part of a project called Walk Again, in which international teams have collaborated to develop a gadget that will allow people with spinal cord injuries to walk, interact with, and, perhaps most importantly, to feel the contours and textures of the world around them.
The technology involves a complicated marriage of neuroscience and physics. In the new study, the research team, led by neurophysiologist Miguel Nicolelis, used a "brain-machine-brain" interface to allow monkeys to sense textures that didn't actually exist. They placed arrays of microelectrodes in two regions of monkeys' brains: the motor cortex, which controls intentional movement, and the somatosensory cortex, which governs how animals sense the external world.
A computer recorded the "intentions" of the monkeys' motor cortices, which allowed the monkeys to control an avatar arm with thoughts (neuronal activity) alone. The virtual arms contacted virtual objects, which were identical visually but differed in texture. The surfaces of the virtual objects sent back signals to the cells of the monkeys' somatosensory cortices, allowing them to perceive the texture discrepancy in these "feeling" areas of the brain.