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Scientist Miguel Nicolelis has given monkeys the power to control wheelchairs with their thoughts.
No, these aren’t telekinetic monkeys. They’ve just had electrodes planted deep in their brains that interact with special high tech wheelchairs. Using this new thought technology, the monkeys are able to steer their wheelchairs and go grab grapes.
Scientists are learning that electric signals from deep in the brain are much stronger and more reliable for use in brain-machine interfaces than brain signals picked up through the skull. Therefore, electric implants will likely be the way of the future and may soon help paralyzed patients walk again.
Nicolelis also works on robotic exoskeletons that have been helping paralyzed patients in limited trials. Not only do the exoskeletons allow patients to walk, they’ve also been improving patients’ muscle tone, heart health, and digestion.
One unexpected finding from the exoskeleton trials is that the faster patients walk, the more normal the experience feels. Since paralysis removes the sensation from their lower limbs, when patients simply stand upright it feels to them as though they’re floating in midair. But when they start to walk, the phantom limb sensation kicks in. “If they walk slow, they feel that they are walking on sand; faster, that they are on grass; and fastest, that they are walking on hot pavement,” said Nicolelis.
Hopefully, the results from the new monkey tests will further improve the exoskeletons. The research is being done by Nicolelis and his team at Duke University as part of their Walk Again Project.
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