The massive and critically acclaimed block-buster Avatar revolved around scientific concepts whereby the mind of one individual could be placed within the body of another biological organism, allowing full cognitive and motor control of the latter.
New research has moved one step closer from making fiction a very possible reality.
Published in this month’s scientific journal Nature Communications, scientists from Harvard Medical School, in Boston, Massachusetts, and Cornell University, New York, have been able to recreate, so to speak, the science from the film in monkey test subjects.
Combining specialists in the fields of neurosurgery and computer engineering, the researchers were able to provide proof that the concept is a distinct possibility in the future, with the potential of aiding the rehabilitation of paralyzed individuals.
The paper mentioned how certain neural activity in the brain are able to control external interfaces, such as the cursor of a computer system, much in the same way your hand would with your desktop mouse or track pad. The ability to influence external objects has been dubbed the brain-machine interface (BMI, though distinct from the popular mass measuring system that shares the same acronym).
The human brain, even when the individual is paralyzed, is still capable of planning movements involving a paralyzed limb, with the neurons dedicated to the motor cortex still sending signals. The reason why limbs remain still is due to the fact that the nerves linking an appendage to said area are unable to transmit the nerve impulse.
Thus, it was thought that it could be scientifically possible to control robotic limbs through shear mind power alone, with Medical News Today reporting the technological and medical breakthrough whereby a paralyzed woman managed to control a prosthetic limb using neural activity two years ago.
However, the researchers hope that their study will help individuals move their own limbs, rather than a manmade prosthesis.
The BMI uses a computer interface that uses “live” decoding algorithms to translate nerve impulses and attempts to predict their destination and desired muscular movement by stimulating its spinal chord.
The experiments were based on using two individuals, one “master” organism that controls the movement, acting as the brain, and another, which received the information and replicated the desired movement. The test subjects were monkeys, one awake and the other sedated.
The “master” monkey had a chip implanted into its brain, whilst its sedated companion had electrodes attached to its spinal chord, allowing the brain of one animal to impact the muscles of the other.
The results of this experiment were extremely promising. Having been previously trained to move a joystick, the master individual was able to elicit movement in the avatar by simply thinking about it. Importantly, they were able to replicate the results, with accurate and desired movement seen in 80-90% of the experiments.
Given the complexity of the task at hand, one of the issues to overcome was indeed controlling the limb of the sedated, or avatar, monkey. The agonistic muscles (those that work together), and antagonistic muscles (those that do opposite activities, like the bicep and tricep in your arm) are yet to be fully understood in terms of successive muscle contractions, meaning reproducing a natural movement was a monumental mission.
As a result, the team looked to influence the intended movement, rather than the actual mechanical aspect, explained co-author Ziv Williams during Cornell University’s press release.
By using two animals, rather than a single organism with a sedated limb, the scientists felt they were able of replicate the exact biology of a paralyzed patient, as this setup allowed them to replicate the lack of physiological connection between the brain and the muscles.
The next step for this research is to begin looking into clinical trials, whilst creating a database of the BMI’s readings to be able to improve the accuracy of the stimulation and muscular movement, allowing paralyzed patients the possibility of moving once again.
What other aspects of medicine would you like to see, or think could benefit from using computer interfaces like the one outlined here?