Monkeys-in-Motion Help Researchers Develop Technology that Could Assist Patients Move Paralyzed Limbs

Researchers at Northwestern University have released reports in a journal, Nature, about their recent undertaking to develop a revolutionary technology that could one day assist paralyzed patients in making use of their affected limbs, regardless of irreversible spinal cord damage.

The technology is being worked on via experiments involving monkeys in which researchers embedded miniscule multi-electrode arrays that identified the activities performed by approximately 100 neurons in the monkeys’ brains. The researchers were then able to decode the actual signals that create hand motions.

With all of the electrical processes logged, the developers were able to gain data concerning signals that went off whenever the chimps held, lifted or let fall an object such as a ball. Eventually, the scientists were able to create an algorithm to actually aid in envisaging the particular muscle patterns and movement that these times of activities necessitate.

The amazing thing is that this information was extractable from a mere 100 neurons, despite the fact that there are literally more than a million neurons involved in carrying out particular activities. The particular neurons examined by the scientists are referred to as “output neurons”, which are the ones that typically transmit indicators to muscles when a movement is desired. But behind these neurons are gazillions of others that actually make the computations which the brain requires in order to carry out the activity. But with the help of the monkeys, researchers are able to gather crucial information regarding all of the neuron processes.

To mimic paralysis in the monkeys, the researchers anesthetized the animals, serving to obstruct nerve activity at the elbow and render the hand temporarily immobile. With the assistance of the embedded neuroprosthesis in the animals’ brains and arms, their brains were able to transmit commands for electrical activity to their muscles, sans use of the their spinal cords… which is… nothing short of amazing. The upshot: in only about 40 milliseconds, the simulated signals helped the monkeys hold on to and pick up an object almost as well they could without the paralysis.

Technology is nothing short of mind-blowing. We can lose sight of how powerful it really is, especially in today’s crazy world where our worlds are centered around accessing an iPad simply to read an email, glance at a new music video, or read a latest headline.
Behind the scenes however, the thinking, researching and development that goes into our most popular gadgets from smartphones to tablets to MP3 Players is simultaneously serving to develop technology that can substantially improve life quality – and maybe even save lives.

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