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By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

2/19/2014 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Partially inspired by 'Avatar,' this is strictly science fact - and not fiction

It's another example of science fiction becoming science fact. In laboratory experiments, one monkey was able to control the body of another monkey through the use of a prosthesis applied to the spine. The practical applications could one day to lead to implants that help patients overcome paralysis.

Could this have sinister applications? The scientists involved with this experiment emphasize that the goal of this research is not for one person to control the body of another.

Could this have sinister applications? The scientists involved with this experiment emphasize that the goal of this research is not for one person to control the body of another.

Highlights

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

2/19/2014 (1 year ago)

Published in Technology

Keywords: Neuroscience, monkeys, experiment, paralysis, Avatar


LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Scientists say that paralysis on account of nerve or spinal cord damage remains a challenge for surgical techniques available today.

Scientists are currently trying to restore movement to such patients with brain-machine interfaces that allow people to operate computers or control robotic limbs.

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"However, we were interested in seeing whether one could use brain activity to help control one's own paralyzed limb," study author Ziv Williams says. A neuroscientist and neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Williams says that  "the benefit there is that you are using your own body as opposed to a mechanical device, which can need a lot of support and is not always practical to carry around with you.

"The hope is to create a functional bypass for the damaged spinal cord or brainstem so that patients can control their own bodies," Williams says.

A brain-to-spinal-cord prosthesis , developed by scientists, connected two adult male rhesus monkeys.

"I was inspired a little by the movie 'Avatar,'" Williams said. If you recall, the main character in the 2009 sci-fi film is a paraplegic. He connects his brain to a computer that helps him control an artificial body.

The monkey that served as the master had electrodes wired into his brain, while the monkey that served as the avatar had electrodes wired into his spine. The avatar's hand was then placed onto a joystick that controlled a cursor displayed on the master's screen.

The avatar monkey was then medicated so that he had no control over his own body. Computers then decoded the brain activity of the "master" monkey and relayed those signals to the spinal cord and muscles of the avatar monkey, which allowed the master to control the cursor by moving the hand of the avatar. A reward of juice was given to the master if he successfully moved the cursor onto a target.

"Probably the biggest challenge we had was having this happen in real-time," Williams said. "In theory, you can record neuronal activity any time, analyze it offline, and use those signals to stimulate the spinal cord or muscles. The trick is being able to figure out what the monkey is intending in real-time and then stimulating the spinal cord or muscles to create the desired movements."

It's a highly complex procedure to control all the muscles in a limb to carry out a desired motion. The researchers simplified this problem "by focusing on the target of the movement as opposed to which muscles and joints are used for the movement," Williams said.

Could this have sinister applications? The scientists involved with this experiment emphasize that the goal of this research is not for one person to control the body of another. Rather, when it comes to treating patients with spinal cord injuries, such as quadriplegics, "we envision putting a microchip into the brain to record the activity behind the intent for movement and putting another microchip in the spinal cord below the site of injury to stimulate limb movements, and then connecting the microchips," Williams said.

"This is just a proof-of-concept," Williams said. "We only had the monkeys aim for a few targets at a time - to be clinically useful, we'd have to be able to cause many different movements in space for fine motor control. Still, we think in principle that is possible."

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