The results of both sets of experiments, published yesterday (July 9) in Scientific Reports, represent the first “living computers” and demonstrate that animal brains may be useful in performing tasks, such as information storage and pattern recognition. “This is incredible,” Andrea Stocco of the University of Washington in Seattle told New Scientist. “We are sampling different neurons from different animals and putting them together to create a superorganism.”
Nicolelis and his colleagues created the monkey brainet by implanting electrode arrays into the animals’ motor cortices. The researchers then showed the animals images of a robotic arm on the screen and gave each monkey control over certain parts of its movement—either a single axis (x or y) or two dimensions (x-y, y-z, or x-z). When the monkeys successfully synchronized their brain activities, the arm moved toward the target and the animals were rewarded with juice. The more times the monkeys did the experiment, the better they got.
“Participating in the Brainet, all three monkeys were able to synchronize their brain activity to produce a unified output capable of moving the virtual arm in 3-D,” Nicolelis said in a press release. “This is the first demonstration of a shared brain-machine interface, a paradigm that has been translated successfully over the past decades from studies in animals all the way to clinical applications. We foresee that shared-BMIs will follow the same track and soon be translated to clinical practice.”
One application Nicolelis foresees for the technology is the control of prosthetic limbs. Perhaps such a brainet could help an experienced user train someone with a new limb to control it, he told New Scientist.
Indeed, if human brains could be linked in a similar way, the results could be spectacular, Iyad Rahwan of the Masdar Institute in Dubai told New Scientist. “It is really exciting. It will change the way humans cooperate.”
Three monkeys share control over the movement of a virtual arm in 3-D space. Monkey C contributes to y- and z-axes (red dot), Monkey M contributes to x- and y-axes (blue dot), and Monkey K contributes to y- and z-axes (green dot). The contribution of the two monkeys to each axis is averaged to determine the arm position (black dot).