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March 16, 2013

How people move things with their minds

(Continued)

TEMPE, Ariz. —

That's the principle behind such rapid progress in brain-computer interface and neuroprosthetics. Researchers began looking into the possibility of reading signals directly from the brain in the 1970s, and testing on rats began in the early 1990s. The first big breakthrough for humans came in Georgia in 1997, when a scientist named Philip Kennedy used brain implants to allow a "locked in" stroke victim named Johnny Ray to spell out words by moving a cursor with his thoughts. (It took him six exhausting months of training to master the process.) In 2008, when Nicolelis got his monkey at Duke to make robotic legs run a treadmill in Japan, it might have seemed like mind-controlled exoskeletons for humans were just another step or two away. If he succeeds in his plan to have a paralyzed youngster kick a soccer ball at next year's World Cup, some will pronounce the cyborg revolution in full swing.

Schwartz, the Pittsburgh researcher who helped Jan Scheuermann feed herself chocolate in December, is optimistic that neuroprosthetics will eventually allow paralyzed people to regain some mobility. But he says that full control over an exoskeleton would require a more sophisticated way to extract nuanced information from the brain. Getting a pair of robotic legs to walk is one thing. Getting robotic limbs to do everything human limbs can do may be exponentially more complicated. "The challenge of maintaining balance and staying upright on two feet is a difficult problem, but it can be handled by robotics without a brain. But if you need to move gracefully and with skill, turn and step over obstacles, decide if it's slippery outside — that does require a brain. If you see someone go up and kick a soccer ball, the essential thing to ask is, 'OK, what would happen if I moved the soccer ball two inches to the right?'" The idea that simple electrodes could detect things as complex as memory or cognition, which involve the firing of billions of neurons in patterns that scientists can't yet comprehend, is far-fetched, Schwartz adds.

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