Researchers trying to find ways to make robots move by brain power alone have made the first two-way system, in which monkeys can not only make a virtual hand move, but can get feedback that their brain “feels” as a real object.
The research takes a big step toward allowing paralyzed patients and others to control a computer or even a robot using thoughts alone.
"Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton," said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Center, who led the study.
Nicolelis has been working with monkeys for years, finding ways to identify and transmit the correct brain signals to allow them to manipulate objects using thoughts alone. For such an artificial system to work for a real patient, however, there would have to be some two-way feedback—with the artificial or virtual limb reporting back about a surface, for instance.
In the journal Nature, Nicolelis reported on how the monkeys manipulated visually identical avatars—computer images of objects. Each one had an invisible texture. The monkeys used the electrical brain interface to not only handle the objects, but to differentiate their textures, he said.
"This is the first demonstration of a brain-machine-brain interface that establishes a direct, bidirectional link between a brain and a virtual body," Nicolelis said in a statement.
"This is also the first time we've observed a brain controlling a virtual arm that explores objects while the brain simultaneously receives electrical feedback signals that describe the fine texture of objects 'touched' by the monkey's newly acquired virtual hand," he added.
"We hope that in the next few years this technology could help to restore a more autonomous life to many patients who are currently locked in without being able to move or experience any tactile sensation of the surrounding world."