Science is building a wheelchair you control with mind-power

Thanks to researchers at Duke University, mind-controlled wheelchairs soon won’t be just for the fictional likes of Charles Xavier. The study resulted in the development of a “rudimentary wireless brain-machine interface (BMI),” which in tests allowed monkeys to successfully move the chair using only their minds. And now I can’t help but fear we’re in for a Dawn of the Planet of the Apes type situation.

According to Nature’s Scientific Reports, the research group, led by Miguel Nicolelis of the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, implanted the device into the brains of rhesus monkeys, whose brains are most similar to humans. (The more you know.) The device works by recording signals from neurons in two regions of the monkeys’ brains involved in movement and sensation.

As motivation to get the monkeys to move, researchers would place a bowl of grapes in the center of a room. (Reminds me of the proverbial carrot and stick.) As the monkeys thought about moving toward the bowl of grapes, the BMI translated those brain signals into operations performed by the wheelchair, moving it towards the bowl of grapes.

“It took a few tries for the monkeys to get used to it, and some are better than others,” Nicolelis said. But most of the monkeys eventually grew used to it, and if the device were used on humans, it would be much easier, he says. “Over time, the device becomes an extension of the animal’s body.”

Even more interesting, as the monkeys continued to use the device, the device started to pick up on brain activity that showed the monkeys were trying to figure out how far away the bowl of grapes were. Whoa! “This was not a signal that was present at the beginning of the training, but something that emerged as an effect of the monkeys becoming proficient in this task,” Nicolelis explained in a press release. “This was a surprise. It demonstrates the brain’s enormous flexibility to assimilate a device, in this case a wheelchair, and that device’s spatial relationships to the surrounding world.”

The experiment is part of Nicolelis’s Walk Again Project, which is “geared towards technologies that can read the brain waves of paralyzed people and translate them into signals that can control artificial limbs and other assistive devices.”

Nicolelis and his team believe that the same technology and techniques used in the study could eventually be used in human patients, both for the control of artificial limbs and in the creation of functional mind-controlled wheelchairs for epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease sufferers.

Such a breakthrough would be life-changing for millions of people.

“I think we are ready to go. We are hoping to start trying this in humans soon,” Nicolelis said.