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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 23:49 GMT
Monkey thoughts control computer
A human demonstrates the machine operated by the monkeys, BBC
The monkeys controlled a video game with brain waves
Scientists in the US have developed a device which allows monkeys to control a video game by thought alone.

Our goal is to use brain plans... as a control signal for someone who is paralysed

Brown University scientist
The research at Brown University, Rhode Island, like several studies before it, demonstrates that brain patterns can be harnessed to operate machines.

It could be of tremendous value to paraplegics - allowing them, for example, to control replacement artificial limbs simply by thinking.

The machine the scientists used was akin to a computer game, in which the monkeys chased a red dot around a screen with a purple one.

Small pea

At first, the monkeys used a joystick to move the dots around. But after a while the joystick was disconnected, and the animals - who had not realised this - continued moving the dots around by thought alone.

The scientists said this was possible because an electrode - about the size of a small pea - had been implanted into the monkeys' brains.

This recorded signals from their motor cortex - an area of the brain that controls movement - as they moved the joystick.

The scientists then analysed the signals with a mathematical formula, "translated" them and fed the signals directly into the computer, where they were reconstructed into directions.

It is not the first time scientists have harnessed brain power to control movement.

Hope for paralysed

Humans have already been implanted with a similar device that allows control of a cursor.

In 1998, for example, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta reported that a paralysed man was able to use a small glass implant in his brain to operate a computerised voice synthesizer that allowed him to communicate.

Another study has shown how the brainwaves of a monkey in one lab can be fed down a line to control a robotic arm in another lab many kilometres away.

And similar studies have been carried out with rodents.

Future applications

However, the latest experiment was significant because the set of thin wires used was less bulky and worked by measuring fewer neurons.

The researchers say their work could have many significant applications.

Using thought alone to control a cursor could allow a paralysed individual, for example, to read e-mail or surf the internet. It might even be possible to use thoughts to control robotic devices to carry out some simple physical tasks.

Mijail Serruya, who led the Brown University scientists, said: "Our goal is to make sense of how brain [signals] move a hand through space and to use that information as a control signal for someone who is paralysed.

"We want to provide some freedom to these individuals."

The latest experiment was reported in the journal Nature.

The BBC's Tom Heap
"The most advanced thought-controlled movement yet achieved"
See also:

15 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Monkey brain operates machine
22 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
Mind over matter
25 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech
Thinking and typing
15 Oct 98 | Sci/Tech
Communicating with 'thought power'
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