FRIDAY, July 9, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- In a step that may bring science closer to a new era for paralyzed people, researchers say they've developed a way to measure the mental desires of monkeys.
It's not clear if the findings will definitely help humans, and understanding what the brain wants is still a challenge. But the scientists behind a new study are hopeful that they're moving closer to a unique type of "neural prosthetic" -- a device controlled by thoughts.
"It would be another way to increase communication between a paralyzed person and the outside world," said Richard Andersen, a professor of neuroscience at California Institute of Technology and co-author of a study in the July 9 issue of Science.
Some scientists are trying to develop neural prostheses that would let people directly control an object or device with their thoughts. For example, Andersen said, a person could direct an artificial hand to pick up a can of soda.
But the technology might be complicated. The person could conceivably have to instruct the hand in each movement from reaching to grabbing. Andersen and his colleagues are after something else -- a way to electronically measure the person's ultimate goal or desire.
In their new study, the researchers studied three monkeys. First, the monkeys learned to reach out to touch a spot on a computer screen in return for a reward of juice. Using brain-monitoring machines, researchers studied the neurological patterns that indicated the monkeys wanted to reach forward.
Then, the monkeys learned to get rewards by mentally controlling a cursor on the computer screen instead of physically reaching. The cursor moved in response to the brain patterns indicating a desire. "They like it because it's easier than reaching," Andersen said.
In humans, the technology could allow paralyzed people to simply think of a goal -- say, drinking from a can of soda -- and let a mechanical device handle the logistics. Paralyzed people might also be able to use the technology as a kind of mood ring to let the world know how they're feeling emotionally. "It would be a bit like body language," he said.
Not everyone is so hopeful. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh who also studies neural prosthesis technology, said that while the new research is interesting and may be useful, he doesn't think it will help scientists develop ways to help people control devices with their minds.
He added that findings in monkeys may not necessarily translate to humans because the brains of the two species are so different.
To learn more about mind control of devices, check out this story from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.