A monkey with a brain implant the size of a fingernail can move a cursor on a computer screen just by thinking. One day scientists may be able to implant similar chips in human brains so that we can control complex devices with our minds.
Humans have actually already been implanted with a device that allows mind control of a cursor, but the new implant, devised by John Donoghue, chairman of neuroscience at Brown University, is smaller and fewer neurons.
Three rhesus monkeys were given the implants, which were first used to record signals from their motor cortex, the area of the brain that controls movement, as they manipulated a joystick with their hands. Then those signals were used to develop a program that enabled one of the monkeys to continue moving the cursor by only using its brain.
During dozens of trials over several months, the monkey moved the cursor just by thinking and used it to touch dots that appeared on the screen, earning orange juice as a reward. Anything that can be controlled with two or three-dimensional coordinates can be controlled by similar implants, Donoghue says. In 1998, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta reported that a paralyzed man was able to control a cursor with a cone-shaped glass implant, using it to operate a voice synthesizer that allowed him to communicate. The main advance in the Brown study is that the researchers were able to use fewer neurons to control the cursor, says Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, a Northwestern University professor and member of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The glass cone implant is bulkier, but its advantage is that brain cells grow around the glass, holding it in place.
Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University, has done robotic arm research on rodents. As for transferring this technology to humans, he says, ?I always estimate these transfers as somewhere between five and 10 years, but it?s very encouraging.?
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Two Australian scientists, Professor Allan Snyder and Dr Elaine Mulcahy, have devised a cap which can increase creative abilities such as drawing or writing. ?We had a breakthrough,? Snyder says. ?We were aware that certain types of brain-damaged people have extraordinary skills in art, music, mathematics, memory, and I wanted to know if we could give rise to those extraordinary skills.?
The cap uses magnetic pulses to stimulate certain brain waves. It bypasses the ?executive centers? in the front part of the brain and goes straight to the creative areas. ?Most of the ?eureka? moments come from the non-conscious parts of the brain,? says Snyder. ?It?s like you?re an executive and you only see one paragraph of a report, while others see the whole 50 pages. We?re bypassing the bit that sees the paragraph and looking at the whole 50 pages. That's the best analogy.?
Volunteers at the Center for the Mind in Sydney wore the cap for 15 minutes and drew three pictures: one before stimulation, another after nine minutes of stimulation, and a third after the full 15 minutes. Many of them showed improved artistic ability after wearing the cap for 15 minutes. ?We?ve definitely shown that you can bypass the executive brain and do things we cannot normally do,? Snyder says.
Part of what the cap does is change the way its wearer sees the world. ?These people with brain damage see the world the way it is,? says Snyder. ?We don?t see the world the way it is; in a sense you?re always prejudiced. This removes that prejudice ? it lets you explore the world anew.?
The cap could be used to interact with computers. Eventually, Snyder sees thinking caps being used for everything from playing video games to interacting with computers. He says, ?What we?re trying to do is accelerate creative thinking.?
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