What the Tech?: These Monkeys Have Mind Control Powers
Researchers at Mass. General figured out how to make primates manipulate each other's movements using microchips.
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital arenât monkeying around: scientists are working on ways to one day allow people with paralysis to regain control of their limbs using specialized internal sensors, and theyâre successfully testing the process using primates.
Using a microchip implanted in a Rhesus monkeyâs brain and a second set of transmitters implanted in a separate sedated monkeyâs spinal cord, Ziv Williams, an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and attending neurosurgeon at Mass. General, said a team of scientists were able to get one animalâs arms to move based on the thoughts of the other.
âThe general concept of the thesis was, basically we had one microchip in the brain of the âmaster,â and what we did was select specific electrodes in the spinal cord of the âavatarâ to produce limited movements. The trick was to do this in real-time,â said Williams.
The study, which used a computer to process and transmit the thoughts and actions between the primates, was published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
Williams said they struggled with how to test this theory in a state of paralysis without having to actually paralyze a monkey. So instead of relying on cruelty to cripple their subject, they used the two primates and sedated one of them.Â âThat was something we really did not want to do for a lot of ethical reasons,” he said. “So the way we approached the problem was to use two separate animals.”
The monkey that acted as the “master” was responsible for controlling or thinking about the movements, and a second, sedated monkey was the “avatar,” who was responsible for generating the movement, he said. This was done using electrodes connecting the brain of the master to the spinal cord of the avatar through the computer.
Williams said the way they got the master to move the limbs of the avatar was by placing a target on a screen in front of him. In order to get a cursor on the screen into that target, the master would have to use his thoughts to control the movements of the avatarâs arms, which were attached to a joystick in a separate room.
The masterâs thoughts would be transferred through the electrodes and translated into movements read by the microchip in the avatarâs body. Once the joystick moved, it would shift the cursor into the target on the screen, and the master would get a rewardâa squirt of juice.Â âWe did this over and over again. The master would see a target at the top of the screen and think, âI need to make a movement to the top of the screen.â And based on that thought, it would now get translated to an actual movement,â he said.
Only two monkeys were used throughout the research, and their roles in the study were interchanged, which produced the same results. For now, the novel idea is merely a “proof of concept.”
But don’t fear: Williams and his team arenât concerned about creating an army of primates to take over the world. They are focused on helping people with serious medical problems.Â âThe goal of the project was to help people with spinal cord injury, or people that are paraplegic or injured from strokes and not able to move bypass their injuries,â said Williams. â[We would like] to translate this into a clinical practice. The only difference would be in an individual thatâs paralyzed, instead of putting the microchip in another personâs body, which isnât the goal of this project, the microchips would be in their own spine below the site of the injury.â
He said the patient would have another microchip in their brain, and would then be able to move their lifeless body parts. âThe goal would really be to animate your own paralyzed arm.â
Admitting that their research was partly inspired by science fictionâthe original concept came before the movie âAvatarâ ever hit theatersâWilliams believes the relation between the Hollywood film and the teamâs research helps people better understand what they are working on.Â âWe already had the idea. But I think the name connotes a very specific thing in peopleâs minds, and helps in conveying the general idea of what we did,â said Williams.
Being able to make a movement isnât the whole picture, however. Williams said a big part of this project is being able to feel or sense movements, and there has been recent progress in that field that’s been studied by other researchers.Â âThe different elements are starting to come together to a point where I think you can actually start combining these different thought processes into something that may be a potentially useful neural prosthesis.â
He said itâs a complex process, however, and it involves a lot of moving parts that need to work together simultaneously. ResearchersÂ want to get to a point where itâs practically useable in the medical field, and hope that can happen in the next decade.Â âThe next steps we are hoping to accomplish is to try and perform these movements at a finer resolution … and being able to produce movements where youâre not just reaching for something, but where you could grab it or point to it. But there are several technical things that need to be done to get to that point,â said Williams. âThatâs an active point of what we are doing right now.â
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2014/02/20/monkey-mind-control-study-harvard-massachusetts-general-hopsital/