Scientists in North Carolina have built a brain implant that lets monkeys control a robotic arm with their thoughts, marking the first time that mental intentions have been harnessed to move a mechanical object. The Technology could someday allow people with paralyzing spinal cord injuries to operate machines or tools with their thoughts as naturally as others today do with their hands.

It might even allow some paralyzed people to move their own arms or legs again, by transmitting the brain’s directions not to a machine but directly to the muscles in those latent limbs.

The brain implants could also allow scientists or soldiers to control, hands-free, small robots that could perform tasks in inhospitable environments or in war zones. In the new experiments, monkeys with wires running from their brains to a robotic arm were able to use their thoughts to make the arm perform tasks. But before long, the scientists said, they will upgrade the implants so the monkeys can transmit their mental commands to machines wirelessly.

“It’s a major advance,” University of Washington neuroscientist Eberhard E. Fetz said of the monkey studies. “This bodes well for the success of brain-machine interfaces.”


The experiments, led by Miguel A.L. Nicolelis of Duke University in Durham, N.C., and published today in the journal PLoS Biology, are the latest in a progression of increasingly science fiction-like studies in which animals — and in a few cases people — have learned to use the brain’s subtle electrical signals…

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