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article imageMonkeys trained to steer a wheelchair

By Tim Sandle     Nov 30, 2014 in Science
Washington - A brain-computer interface has used the brain activity of monkeys to allow them to steer a wheelchair towards a food reward.
Training a monkey to navigate a wheelchair has proved to be relatively straightforward. However, to enable this to happen the monkeys need to have electrodes implanted into their brains. These electrodes enable scientists to decode their neural activity and use it to steer the chair via a brain-computer interface (BCI).
For the study, scientists first recorded activity in the motor and sensory cortices of monkeys riding around in the chair. With this, a computer decoder then correlated this neural activity with the direction of movement of the chair, and after the training period was over, the BCI worked in reverse: using the neural inputs to actually steer the chair.
The study was carried out using two monkeys. After a short period of time, both monkeys eventually learned to steer the chair across the room to a grape dispenser, where they received their food reward.
In essence, the study showed that monkeys can learn to drive if they want food. The basis of the study is a little more serious. In the long-term, scientists want to understand how monkeys navigate in the jungles or on trees. The results could also be applicable to helping people with spinal cord injuries.
In a research brief, the science team write: "Research findings suggest possible new approaches to treat chronic spinal cord injuries, which have long been considered untreatable. Scientists report successful efforts to overcome or circumvent seemingly irreparable and long-standing damage at the site of the original injury using a variety of methods, from implantation of early-stage brain cells to brain-machine interface."
The study was carried out at the Duke University lab of Miguel Nicolelis. The findings have been presented to the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference in Washington, DC.
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