Monkeys control robots with their minds

     Scientists have trained a group of monkeys to feed themselves marshmallows using a robot arm controlled by sensors implanted in their brains, a feat that could one day help paralyzed people operate prosthetic limbs on their own, according to a study out Thursday.

A monkey feeds itself using a robotic arm.

Lead researcher Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh said he believes it won’t be long before the technology is tested in humans, although he predicts it will be longer before the devices are used in actual patients with disabilities.

“I think we’ll be doing this on an experimental basis in two years,” said Schwartz, professor of neurobiology at the university’s School of Medicine.

The results were appeared in the journal Nature’s online edition on Thursday. The arm is controlled by a network of tiny electrodes called a brain-machine interface, implanted into the motor cortex of the monkeys’ brains — the region that controls movement.

It picks up the signals of brain cells as they generate commands to move and converts those into directional signals for the robotic arm, which the monkeys eventually used as a surrogate for their own. Watch monkeys feed themselves with robotic appendage. »

The researchers report that one monkey achieved a success rate of 78 percent over 13 days of trials, while a second monkey completed its tasks with the arm in 61 percent of tests conducted over two days. They said the animals also were able to direct the arm around obstacles to ensure safe delivery of the food, which included small items such as grapes and marshmallows.

The ability of the monkeys to interact with the robotic arm and objects in the work space embodies a “multi-degree-of-freedom” that “paves the way towards the development of dexterous prosthetic devices that could ultimately achieve arm and hand function at a near natural level,” according to the Nature article.

“I’m most excited by the chance to study many neurons at the same time, so we can see how they work together as a network,” Schwartz told CNN. The research provides the opportunity to consider interactions among neurons, he added.

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