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Thanks to a brain implant, these monkeys can control wheelchairs with their minds

A new mind-control system could soon allow severely paralyzed individuals to drive their wheelchairs with their minds. The research team behind the implantable Brain-Machine Interface successfully tested the control system on monkeys in a recent study. The primate test subjects were so successful at controlling wheelchairs with their minds that researchers believe the technology is nearly ready for human use.

Researchers at the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering created the Brain-Machine Interface in order to boost accuracy and decrease lag found in other mind-controlled options. Once the devices were implanted, the team drove their monkey subjects around in wheelchairs in order to passively record their brain activity. Engineers were then able to create an algorithm from the data, translating the monkey’s thoughts and intentions into electrical signals. Those electrical signals were used to drive the wheelchairs, which the monkeys quickly mastered once they were set loose in a test environment.

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In order to create some incentive, the researchers placed the monkeys in wheelchairs in random positions in a room. Throughout the testing period, the monkeys were consistently able to navigate their wheelchairs towards a bowl of fruit located somewhere in the same room, using nothing but their minds. The brain implants have proven to be much quicker and more accurate than EEG devices of the past, which are typically temporarily glued to a subject’s scalp. “We wanted to have something that is closer to the way we move for a human who is completely paralyzed, because you can control each movement continuously”, said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, leader of the research study.

The Duke team believes that despite a minimally invasive surgery to implant the device, the solution is effective enough to merit a positive response from potential candidates who are severely paralyzed. In the future, the technology could also be used to control artificial limbs or prosthetics with refined movements and nothing but the power of the brain. Although the research study was only published this week, it’s possible that human trials will begin in the very near future. “I think we are ready to go. We are hoping to start trying this in humans soon,” said Nicolelis.