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Research Offers Hope for Robotic Limbs Controlled by Thought Alone


Scientists in the United States have developed technology allowing a monkey to control a robotic arm by thought alone. The research underway at the University of Pittsburgh involves implanting electrodes into the part of the brain that controls movement. Dr. Andrew Schwartz and his team believe their work will eventually help people who have lost the use of their limbs. Paul Sisco has more in this Searching for Solutions report.

In the research experiment, the monkey can grab a marshmallow with a robotic arm, using only its thoughts. The animal's arms are restrained, yet it controls a robotic limb to pull the treat to its mouth. It even brings the prosthetic digits back to lick off more of the sweet treat.

Scientists from the University of Pittsburgh implanted 100 tiny electrodes into the animal's motor cortex portion of the brain. Tiny wires run from the monkey's brain to a computer connected to the robotic arm. When the monkeys mind tells the arm to move it does.

University of Pittsburg neurologist Andrew Schwartz says, “It shows that we are understanding more about brain function and we are rapidly reaching a point where we'll have something really nice to use."

Schwartz says the research could benefit patients suffering from paralysis, spinal cord injuries or neurological disorders.

Miguel Nicolelis agrees. He conducts similar research at Duke University.

"We've basically shown that it's possible to extract the raw electrical signals that our brains use to control our own limbs, and route these signals to an official robot and make the robot perform,” Nicolelis says.

The Duke researchers recently used a monkeys brain signals to make a robot walk a treadmill thousands of kilometers away.

Dr. Lloyd Hey works with quadriplegic patients. "Well I think the research is incredibly important in that it shows how the brain can be used to control some sort of external device," he says, "and when you're dealing with quadriplegic patients, even very small improvements in their ability to control some sort of external environment can be absolutely huge," Hey said.

Researchers say the technology allowing a monkey to move a device with thought alone could be adapted for human use in a few years.

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