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Monkeys Use Brain in New Ways

If you’ve watched the news lately, you might have seen the report where two monkeys controlled a robotic arm with their minds to feed themselves. (It didn’t take two monkeys to control one arm. Each monkey controlled its own robo-arm to feed itself pieces of marshmallow or fruit.)

How You Get a Monkey to Control a Robotic Arm with It’s Mind

As you might imagine, it was a complicated process.

Using “visualization” techniques, the study’s leader, Andrew Schwartz, showed the monkeys what he wanted them to do. Then he “mapped” their neural activity to see what cells reacted in which ways. They did this by placing probes into the monkeys’ brains.

The probes detected the electrical impulses that occur prior to any physical movement taking place. When the monkeys thought about moving their arms to get their food, the probes sent the data to a computer.

Researchers then used that info to create an algorithm linked to a computer connected to the robotic arm. When the monkeys thought about moving their arms, the robotic arm was able to interpret that thought pattern and move.

The Significance

As you might imagine, this is astounding. It’s a huge step forward in what’s known as “brain-machine interface (BMI) technology,” which will one day help people suffering from injuries and diseases causing impaired movement.

However, while this is a major step forward, it’s still just a baby step in the scheme of things. Equipment will need to be made smaller for use in homes. And the quality of the sensors needs to improve because apparently they wear out fast as of now.

That means there will be more and more experiments, which makes me wonder if they’ll use more and more monkeys.

The Monkeys in the Middle

And being the animal lover I am, all I could think when I saw those monkeys using the arms to feed themselves was, “I wonder what they must be thinking about all this. Are they wondering why their perfectly functional arms are being restrained and the robo one is moving? Are they afraid of the robotic arm? Can they feel the probes in their brains?”

But maybe once they got to treat themselves to fruit and marshmallows they didn’t much mind being guinea pigs. (That’s what I hope anyway.)

I just wish I’d found out if they had names. They deserve to be remembered in scientific history the same as the researchers will be. Or maybe honored with a day of their own. (That’s a new one I hadn’t thought of before: Remembering Animals Used for Scientific and Technological Progress Day.)

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