​Duke neuroscientist delivers talk on brain-machine interfaces

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Miguel Nicolelis discussed the brains behind smart prosthetics in a Dean’s Scholars Distinguished Lecture Series talk Thursday.

Titled “Brain-Machine Interfaces: From Basic Science to Neurological Rehabilitation,” the talk focused on Nicolelis’ work studying how brain-machine interfaces use brain activity in animals and humans to control prosthetic devices and how this technology can help people suffering from paralysis.

Nicolelis said that while neuroscientists normally try to learn how the brain works by recording the electrical signals of a single neuron at a time, he wanted to look at brain activity on a larger scale. 

“Doing that is like trying to understand how the ecosystem of the rainforest in Brazil works one tree at a time,” Nicolelis said during the talk.

Nicolelis and his collaborators wanted to see if it was possible to take the sensory signals from 100 neurons in an animal’s brain and connect that information to a mechanical device in a brain-machine interface. A small 3-D printed cube was surgically implanted into a rhesus monkey’s brain and electronically connected to a robotic arm. 

The monkey then played a video game, using a joystick to move a cursor into a target that randomly appeared on a screen, while researchers recorded the activity of 100 neurons. Whenever the cursor hit the target, the monkey was rewarded with a drop of orange juice. Once the monkey was proficient at playing the game, the joystick was removed and the brain-machine interface turned on. Over time, the monkey was able to use the brain-machine interface to move the cursor and robot arm simply by imagining movement.

“The motor cortex of the brain is assimilating the robotic arm as if the robotic arm were an extension of the body of the monkey,” Nicolelis said during the talk. “Neurons are being dedicated to control the robotic arm. We [have] evidence that as we start using tools — a car, a bicycle, a pen — these tools become assimilated in our brain as an extension of ourselves.”

Nicolelis and researchers went on to create a neuroprosthesis that allowed mice to detect otherwise invisible infrared light through a new sensory channel in their brains, as well as a robotic exoskeleton that paraplegic humans can control. Nicolelis founded the Walk Again Project, which aims to develop brain-machine interface technology for rehabilitating people suffering from paralysis. In 2014, a 29-year-old paraplegic kicked off the FIFA World Cup using the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton after months of training.

Nicolelis said in an interview that developing these new technologies is an experimental tool to answer the larger questions about the brain. 

“Technology has become almost like an object of worship. And I don’t believe in that,” Nicolelis said. “Younger people seem absolutely convinced that we can build machines that will be better than us right now, when this is ludicrous.”

Nicolelis said he is studying not just the brain but the human condition, which many scientists seem to be failing to keep in mind.

“The human condition is the collection of all attributes of our species,” he said. “We are unique because of the kind of brain we have, with our ability to create expectations, emotions, feelings, to project our abstract ideas into the world through science, art, technology and tool-making.”

Nicolelis said the future of his lab will include using wireless systems to study multiple brains and the social interaction between them. Nicolelis said that everything animals experience comes down to the brain.

“I believe that the brain is unique. The brain is the true creator of everything,” Nicolelis said. “The brain has allowed us to create a vision of reality, a vision of the cosmos, and the explanations that we provide, mathematical, artistic, scientific, are all coming from the brain. They all have the stamp of the biological principles of our mind. And this is very unique.”