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Way beyond Cyborg

Communication between brains and machines brings robotic prosthesis closer to reality

AZEITE DELEOS“Dreaming small and dreaming big take up the same amount of time” is what Miguel Nicolelis’s grandmother used to say. Today, Nicolelis is a neuroscientist who works at Duke University in the USA. He has put those words into practice and his dreams are big. Among other accomplishments, in the last few years he taught monkeys how to react to signs they receive from a computer directly into their brains and to control a mechanical arm without moving a finger. This is the way to help people with spinal cord injuries to recover mobility.

The possibilities that arise from the interaction between brains and robots show why neuroscience is one of the most exciting fields of research nowadays. And it is the reason why Nicolelis was invited to present his findings at the prestigious Nobel Forum at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, the seat of the Nobel Prize. During his presentation, the Brazilian scientist reviewed the progress made in neuroscience in the last 20 years and showed how the boundaries of science have been pushed out.

An experiment scheduled for the end of November intends to literally demolish boundaries. The same brain impulses that drive the legs of a monkey walking around Duke will be passed through an ultra-swift Internet connection  to the ATR Robotics Laboratory in Kyoto, Japan, to guide the steps of a robot. The robot, in turn, will send information on its path back to the monkey.

“It’s a closed cycle”, said Nicolelis, who has a much less remote application in mind: a metal structure that would be used with handicapped patients and  be controlled by the person’s own brain. The return of the information from the robotic prosthesis to the brain will re-create a natural situation, in which the walker adjusts his movements to the differences in levels on the ground.
The experiment has not materialized yet, but preparatory tests have given  the scientist self-confidence.  Part of the preparation entailed training the monkeys to react to an artificial message generated by the computer, which is very different to the brain’s natural impulses. The computers, in turn, have to be programmed to translate the brain activity into commands that control the mechanical arms or legs.

Nicolelis arrived in the USA in 1989. At that time, he developed a technique to monitor the activity of up to 500 nerve cells at the same time. “We were thus able to show very categorically that the brain functions because of the action of populations of nerve cells, and not because of isolated cells”, he says. This integrated view of the nervous system led to a major conceptual leap forward and spread the technique worldwide.

The researcher then applied the technique on mice, monkeys, apes and finally on patients with Parkinson’s Disease. In addition to teaching the brain how to communicate with a computer, the researcher’s equipment has helped understand – circumvent – the damage that Parkinson’s does to the brain. In transgenic mice with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s, a number of cells in the motor cortex of the brain send impulses at the same time instead of alternately. The result is that the rats tremble and are unable to walk. Nicolelis discovered that it is possible to stimulate regions of the peripheral nervous system and de-synchronize the nerve impulses, to remove the simultaneous aspect. “The animal shakes less and is able to walk again”, he says. The article about these findings is scheduled for publication in two months, but the author has already stated that it will be possible to use the method on many human patients.

Some more good news is that Nicolelis’ research in the USA will result in technology transfers to Brazil. In 2008, São Paulo’s Sírio-Libanês Hospital will start using a method that will enable the monitoring of nerve cell activity during surgeries on patients with Parkinson’s. The device will allow nerve cells with anomalous functions to be detected so that micro electrodes can be implemented to correct the problem. In addition, the technology that has resulted in significant progress at Duke is about to arrive at the Edmond e Lily Safra International Neurosciences Institute in the city of Natal, state of Rio Grande do Norte. The institute was founded and is headed by Nicolelis.