Oct 06 2011


It’s just a matter of time. The cyborg revolution is coming (although I won’t dare to make specific predictions about the timeline).

All the necessary basic principles have been demonstrated. We can train animals and people to operate either a robotic or virtual actuator with their thoughts alone. We can trick the brain into occupying a virtual body or “owning” an artificial limb. And now we can even provide specific sensory feedback directly to the brain – so called Brain-Machine-Brain-Interface (BMBI – I wonder if the researchers are calling it “Bambi”).

Just published in Nature Magazine is research involving rhesus monkeys that were taught to control a virtual arm with their thoughts alone. This much has been done before – various research teams are working on this technology, either involving implantable electrodes or surface electrodes. The new research, however, adds a new dimension – providing sensory feedback to the monkeys.

In this research implantable brain electrodes were used, and the monkeys were taught to control a virtual (rather than robotic) arm. These electrodes were placed in the primary motor cortex, and as with prior research the monkeys learned to control the virtual limb as if it were their own. In addition, the researchers provided sensory feedback through intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) to the primary somatosensory cortex. They had the monkey explore three different virtual objects that were visually identical but provided different sensory feedback. The virtual objects, in other words, had different texture. The monkeys were able to learn to distinguish the objects based solely on the sensory feedback.

The obvious applications are for exoskeletons (orthotics) and artificial limbs (prosthetics). It is obviously better to have an artificial limb that can feel as well as move. The sensory feedback is also critical to the process by which we feel as if we own and control a limb. If motor intention syncs with sensory feedback from vision and proprioception (feeling where a limb is in three-dimensional space), then this feedback circuit creates the sensation that we own and control the body part. Otherwise the body part feels as if it is “alien” or just an artificial part attached to our bodies.

Sensation is also critical for exploring and manipulating the world.

Obviously current technology is extremely crude, although rapidly approaching the point where it is functionally useful. There are several limiting factors. The first is that, for optimal control and “resolution” we need to implant wires into the brain. This is invasive and carries risks (although can be done effectively). External caps are safer and easier, but are not as precise.

Also, the whole thing needs to be powered, which means carrying around a heavy battery. This problem will likely be solved by devices that capture energy from biological processes (moving, breathing, etc) in order to power implantable devices. Improved battery technology wouldn’t hurt either.

And of course we also need to improve our knowledge of exactly where to place electrodes in the brain and what kind of sensory feedback to provide – in other words, how to communicate with the brain. We already have a great deal of knowledge about functional brain anatomy, but at the same time have a lot more to learn.

The plausibility of this technology is enhanced by the plasticity of the brain. It has a tremendous capacity to not only learn but to actually alter its wiring to adapt to new functions. There does not appear to be any absolute or even relative barriers to developing brain-machine interface technology. The proof of concepts have all already been done. Now it is just a matter of refinement.

16 responses so far

16 thoughts on “Brain-Machine-Brain”

  1. mlegower says:

    The Phillies could have used “improved batter technology” last night! ZING!

    But seriously, good stuff.

  2. SARA says:

    Finally, the 6 million dollar man is around the corner. Except I think he would probably cost a great deal more than that, even after we adjusted for inflation.

  3. locutusbrg says:

    You just know the military will turn this into a weapon, able to leap tall buildings etc.. Still, Amazing to think in our lifetime spinal cord injury patients may be able to walk or pick up items again. Always thought it would require development of functional nano technology to interface properly with the human brain.

  4. CivilUnrest says:

    Haha! Nice one, mlegower.

    Obviously, the first applications of this technology will be to restore normal function to people missing limbs and whatnot…

    …but I’m even more excited for the coming wave of voluntary biological enhancements. Obviously, things will start small (being mentally notified of a cell phone call and then silencing/accepting it with thoughts alone) but the potential is unbelievable.

  5. Umdolofia says:

    Great blog, Steven.
    The work to which you refer is essentially ‘exoneurological’, potentially increasing the speed and strength of our response to the outer world. This will allow us to ‘catch up’ with those mammals which are already superior to us in respect of speed and strength.
    What are your thoughts on the potential for ‘endoneurological’ adaptations such as may be achieved by improving the manner in which we store, retrieve and process data. Then we would become truly superhuman, having enhanced that capacity which fundamentally defines us as human.

  6. ccbowers says:

    In addition to just touch, I wonder how proprioception/kinesthesia could be incorporated. It seems like a difficult problem, but I don’t know. Maybe it will work itself out in a way that the last paragraph to this post alludes to

  7. tmac57 says:

    Does this mean we can give apes the use of opposable thumbs?

  8. tmac57 says:

    That is an unfair ad hominem…to apes!

  9. ccbowers says:

    “That is an unfair ad hominem…to apes!”

    Actually that would be “ad hominoid.” 😉
    Also apes already have opposable thumbs.

  10. tmac57 says:

    I was just listening to a story about this on Science Friday,interviewing neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. The question was raised about using this technology for dangerous jobs where you could send in a robot remotely controlled by a human to do hazardous work such as the clean up at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Dr. Nicolelis said that it would never be justified to implant the device in a regular person that does not have a severe disability ,implying that this would not be practical.But it seems to me,that if you had a disabled patient that could use the device,then that person could then be employed to do this kind of work,giving them something useful and productive to do with their life.Basically allowing them to have a job.

  11. Ted N. says:

    In this area, ‘The Concept of Mind’ by Gilbert Ryle has been my bible, so to speak, for many years.
    In the light of the recent developments and the results of reliable researches in and observations of the functions of the brain, which Dr. Novella kindly makes accessible to many of us (i guess), i have to admit now, that the Aristotelian model is grossly defectuous and that the neurology of the future is likely to be more technico-empirical than philosophical, metaphysical or speculative.

  12. Kawarthajon says:

    Although all of this technology holds great promise (and of course an impending global apocalypse caused by the war between humans and machines), realistically, this technology will likely be out of reach for most people, other than the military and very wealthy citizens. An exo-skeleton machine would cost millions of dollars to build and it is unlikely that they would ever be mass produced on a scale that would lower the price dramatically. Even today, many people with disabilities can’t afford commonly available and mass-produced aids, like electric wheelchairs, communication devices, accessible cars, and so on. The limit here is not technology, but economics.

  13. RickK says:

    Only tangentially on topic. I just read “The Disappearing Spoon” and was fascinated by the discovery that the body doesn’t see the element titanium as a foreign body. A scientist (Branemark?) was experimenting with titanium to cover damaged rabbit bone during a bone marrow experiment when he noticed that the growing bone fused to the titanium. Any other type of metal would get rejected by the body, and would be wrapped in something like collagen to isolate it. Titanium is different. It bypasses the defense mechanisms, and the body happily incorporates it even to the point of fusing bone to it.

    An early step in blending man and machine. And another example of why real science and nature are so much more interesting than pseudoscience and fantasy.

  14. Elwood says:

    Slightly OT…

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this post – it’s the perfect opportunity to recommend Max Barry’s
    Machine Man
    I’ve been meaning to mention it since I heard a recent SGU and there was a mention of implants to enhance senses.
    The main character in this book is involved in a program that does exactly that… and more. Fantastic read, darkly humorous. Australian author, although you wouldn’t know it from the content.

    I hope Neurologica readers enjoy it as much as I did.

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