Monkey brain implant may help disabled people to ‘feel’

The brain implants helped the monkeys differentiate between virtual objects that looked the same but ‘felt’ different – even though the monkeys never touched the objects. Katie Zhuang

Monkeys fitted with brain implants can “feel” different surfaces of identical virtual objects, a new study shows, paving the way for technology that may paralysed people experience the sense of touch.

In a paper published today by the journal Nature, an international team of researchers describe implanting microwires into the motor cortex (which controls voluntary movement) and somatosensory cortex (which helps in the perception of touch) of two monkeys.

Using only their brains, the monkeys were able to move a cursor over visually identical objects on a computer screen. Though the objects looked the same, stimulus sent via the microwires told the monkeys brain that each object had a different tactile “feel”.

“Touching” one object led to a reward – in this experiment, juice – while the other, identical object did not. Scientists observed that the monkeys were attracted to the “feel” of the reward-producing object, showing that they could sense this object without actual skin-to-surface contact.

Lead researcher Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University in the US was quoted on the Nature news website as saying the findings may one day be used to build a suit for severely paraylsed people, a research effort known as the Walk Again Project.

“This is going to be essential for the clinical application that we want to create and test within the next three years,” Nicolelis was quoted as saying.