Monkeys controlling robot arms with their minds show how brains can be reprogrammed

New research out of the University of Chicago shows a trio of rhesus monkeys controlling robotic arms with their mind. Each of the three primates are amputees, having had limbs removed after suffering injuries between four and 10 years ago. The monkeys learned to grasp a ball using the robotic limb through trial and error, and were rewarded with juice for their efforts.

As cool as the whole “monkey controls robotic arm” bit of the story is, however (and it’s plenty cool, mind you), the team tells TechCrunch it believes the most interesting part of the finds are less about the robotics than the implications for such technology on the brain. After the little monkeys were exposed to the system for 40 days, the researchers began to note changes in their brain.

“What’s more exciting is that brain-machine interfaces can be used to actually change the brain,” senior author Nicholas Hatsopoulos said in a conversation earlier today. “How it reorganizes with training or exposure. Just like it reorganizes when you learn to play tennis or the piano. It’s a motor skill you’re learning.”

Electrodes were implanted in the monkeys’ skulls, close to the brain. They do double duty of both allowing the monkey to control the arms with their thoughts, while allowing the scientists to monitor changes to an area of the brain long ago rewired by amputation. In the future, the system could also be used to deliver sensory information to back to the brain, potentially bringing a sense of touch to the prosthetic.

It’s a distinct advantage over similar studies that tie prothesis into muscle activity. Implementation could also go beyond amputees, potentially impacting people with paralysis. For now, however, the study is focused on people missing limbs, due in part to the DARPA funding that got it started in the first place. The military hopes these findings could some day be used to benefit soldiers who have lost limbs on the battlefield.