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A study in Nature Communications found brain implants connected between two monkeys could be used to decode brain activity from an alert monkey to produce directed movements in a temporarily paralysed monkey.

Prof Bernard A Conway, Head of Biomedical Engineering, University of Strathclyde, said:

“People affected by paralysis face a lifetime unable to make the movements that healthy people take for granted and can perform with little effort. At the present time there is no cure for paralysis and this means there is a permanent disconnection between a paralysed person’s thoughts, or intention to move, and the production of the coordinated muscle movements that happen when a healthy person performs a movement.

“This work in primates shows how this disconnection between brain and controlled movement could be overcome using brain machine interfaces that have the ability to identify the user’s intention or desire to perform a specific movement and, once identified, how this intended action can be translated through neural stimulation into the muscle activations that achieve the final goal of the movement. The work is a key step forward that demonstrates the potential of brain machine interfaces to be used in restoring purposeful movement to people affected by paralysis. However, significant work still remains to be done before this technology will be able to be offered to the people who need it.”

Prof Christopher James, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine, University of Warwick, said:

“This paper describes some very important research. We know already that brain-machine interfacing is possible; my lab has shown it as well as many others across the globe. So it is now well-known that extracting information from the brain is doable, albeit crudely. In my work on vision I showed how conceptually we might get information into the brain and other work has connected rat brain to rat brain, all proving the concept of brain to brain communication. This research is different ? they are showing that they can get the subtleties of “intended movement” from one brain, disentangle the information and transmit it to the spinal cord of another primate and “inject” that information into the system, such that the second primate can move according to the intention of the first primate.

“This is good news for a few reasons. Firstly, because it means the information from the brain in the first primate is being read very well, and secondly, because the relevant information is being extracted and being used in fine enough detail to enable fine motor control of the second primate. This has profound implications, most especially for controlling limbs in spinal cord injury, or controlling prosthetic limbs with limb amputees. Some people may be concerned this might mean someone taking over control of someone else’s body, but the risk of this is a no-brainer: whilst the control of limbs is sophisticated it is still rather crude overall, plus of course in an able-bodied person their own control over their limbs remains anyway, so no-one is going to control anyone else’s body against their wishes any time soon!”

‘A cortical?spinal prosthesis for targeted limb movement in paralysed primate avatars’ by Williams et al. published in Nature Communications on Tuesday 18 February 2014

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