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Almost ‘Avatar’: Brain Implant Lets One Monkey Control Another

In work inspired partly by the movie "Avatar," one monkey controlled the body of another monkey using thought alone, via a connection from the brain of the puppet-master monkey to the spine of the other through a prosthesis, researchers say.

These findings could help lead to implants that help patients overcome paralysis, scientists added.

Paralysis due to nerve or spinal cord damage remains a challenge for current surgical techniques. Scientists are now attempting to restore movement to such patients with brain-machine interfaces that allow people to operate computers or control robotic limbs. [Monkey Avatars: Primates Move Virtual Arms with Mind (Video)]

"However, we were interested in seeing whether one could use brain activity to help control one's own paralyzed limb," said study author Ziv Williams, a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Ultimately, "the hope is to create a functional bypass for the damaged spinal cord or brainstem so that patients can control their own bodies," Williams told Live Science.

The researchers developed a brain-to-spinal-cord prosthesis that connected two adult male rhesus monkeys.

"I was inspired a little by the movie 'Avatar,'" Williams said. The main character in the 2009 sci-fi film is a paraplegic, and connects his brain to a computer that helps him control an artificial body.

The monkey that served as the master had electrodes wired into his brain, while the monkey that served as the avatar had electrodes wired into his spine. The avatar's hand was placed onto a joystick that controlled a cursor displayed on the master's screen.

The avatar monkey was sedated so that he had no control over his own body. Computers decoded the brain activity of the master monkey and relayed those signals to the spinal cord and muscles of the avatar monkey. This allowed the master to control the cursor by moving the hand of the avatar. The master received a reward of juice if he successfully moved the cursor onto a target.

Williams and his colleagues Maryam Shanechi and Rollin Hu detailed their findings online today (Feb. 18) in the journal Nature Communications.

- Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor

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