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March 11, 2013

How people move things with their minds

TEMPE, Ariz. — Behind a locked door in a white-walled basement in a research building in Tempe, Ariz., a monkey sits stone-still in a chair, eyes locked on a computer screen. From his head protrudes a bundle of wires; from his mouth, a plastic tube. As he stares, a picture of a green cursor on the black screen floats toward the corner of a cube. The monkey is moving it with his mind.

The monkey, a rhesus macaque named Oscar, has electrodes implanted in his motor cortex, detecting electrical impulses that indicate mental activity and translating them to the movement of the ball on the screen. The computer isn't reading his mind, exactly — Oscar's own brain is doing a lot of the lifting, adapting itself by trial and error to the delicate task of accurately communicating its intentions to the machine. (When Oscar succeeds in controlling the ball as instructed, the tube in his mouth rewards him with a sip of his favorite beverage, Crystal Light.) It's not technically telekinesis, either, since that would imply that there's something paranormal about the process. It's called a "brain-computer interface" (BCI). And it just might represent the future of the relationship between human and machine.

Stephen Helms Tillery's laboratory at Arizona State University is one of a growing number where researchers are racing to explore the breathtaking potential of BCIs and a related technology, neuroprosthetics. The promise is irresistible: from restoring sight to the blind, to helping the paralyzed walk again, to allowing people suffering from locked-in syndrome to communicate with the outside world. In the past few years, the pace of progress has been accelerating, delivering dazzling headlines seemingly by the week.

At Duke University in 2008, a monkey named Idoya walked on a treadmill, causing a robot in Japan to do the same. Then Miguel Nicolelis stopped the monkey's treadmill — and the robotic legs kept walking, controlled by Idoya's brain. At Andrew Schwartz's lab at the University of Pittsburgh in December 2012, a quadriplegic woman named Jan Scheuermann learned to feed herself chocolate by mentally manipulating a robotic arm. Just last month, Nicolelis' lab set up what it billed as the first brain-to-brain interface, allowing a rat in North Carolina to make a decision based on sensory data beamed via Internet from the brain of a rat in Brazil.

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