April 19, 2012 at 8:34 PM ET
Researchers at Northwestern University have created a system by which a paralyzed hand can be controlled through an implant in the brain by "eavesdropping" on the brain's commands and relaying them to corresponding implant in the arm.
The study, led by Lee E. Miller at NWU's Feinberg School of Medicine, demonstrated that a monkey, its hand temporarily disabled by an anesthetic, could perform simple movements far better with the implants, together called a "neuroprosthesis," in place.
"We are eavesdropping on the natural electrical signals from the brain that tell the arm and hand how to move, and sending those signals directly to the muscles," said Miller.
Normally, a "move" signal would originate in the brain, travel down the spinal cord, and exit a spinal nerve into a limb, where it connects with muscle systems. But the neuroprosthesis intercepts that signal using an an electrode array in the brain, and sends it directly to the implant in the arm. The process takes less than 40 milliseconds.
It's a powerful advantage for people who would like to use a prosthetic limb but can't due to spinal damage. In their case, the signal to move a limb never reaches its destination, and that limb is disabled even if it is itself in perfect health.
Only further experimentation will tell whether it is possible to adapt the technology for human use, but it is at the very least a groundbreaking and highly promising piece of research. The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.