The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines – and How It Will Change Our Lives

Beyond Boundaries draws on Prof Nicolelis's ground-breaking research with monkeys that he taught to control the movements of a robot located halfway around the globe by using brain signals alone.

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Excerpted from Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines – and How It Will Change Our Lives, by Miguel Nicolelis (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012). Reprinted with permission from the author.

In the last decade, although no decisive blow has yet been delivered, the distributionists have gained the high ground in the battle over the brain’s soul. Discoveries emanating from neuroscience laboratories around the world are overturning the localizationists’ model. Among these collective efforts, research conducted in my lab at Duke University over the last two decades has helped to show categorically that a single neuron can no longer be viewed as the fundamental functional unit of the brain; instead, connected populations of neurons are responsible for the symphonies of thought composed by brains. Today, we can record the music produced by these neural ensembles and even replay a small fraction of it in the form of concrete and voluntary motor behaviors. By listening to just a few hundred neurons—an infinitesimally small sample of the billions of neurons in the brain—we are already beginning to replicate the process by which complex thoughts become instantaneous body actions.

What principles guide the composition and conduction of these neural symphonies? After more than two decades delving into the workings of neural circuits, I have found myself looking for those principles both outside the brain, beyond the boundaries that have constrained our biological evolution out of humble beginnings in stardust, as well as deep inside the central nervous system, trying to identify and give voice to the brain’s own point of view. Here I propose that, like the universe that fascinates us so much, the human brain is a relativistic sculptor; a skillful modeler that fuses neuronal space and time into an organic continuum responsible for creating all that we see and feel as reality, including our very sense of being. In the following chapters, I will propose that, in the next decades, by combining such a relativistic view of the brain with our growing technological ability to listen and decode even larger and more complex neural symphonies, neuroscience will eventually push human reach way beyond the current constraints imposed by our fragile primate bodies and sense of self.

I can imagine this world with some confidence because of the work conducted by my lab to teach monkeys to utilize a revolutionary neurophysiological paradigm, which we named brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). Using such BMIs, we were able to demonstrate that monkeys could learn to control voluntarily the movements of extraneous artificial devices, such as robotic arms and legs, located either close to or very far from them, using only their raw electrical brain activity. This unleashes a vast array of possibilities for the brain and the body that could, in the long run, completely change the way we go about our lives.

To test the different versions of our BMIs, we took advantage of a new experimental approach to read directly and simultaneously the electrical signals produced by hundreds of neurons that belong to a neural circuit. This technology was initially developed as a way to test the distributionists’ viewpoint: that populations of single neurons, communicating with one another across different brain regions, are required to generate any brain function. But once we discovered how to listen to some motor neural symphonies played by the brain,
we decided to push further: to record, decode, and transmit—all the way to the other side of the world—the motor thoughts of a primate cortex. We then translated these thoughts into digital commands to generate humanlike motion in machines that were never designed to acquire such unique human traits. It was at that moment that our BMIs stumbled on a way to liberate the brain from the constraints imposed by the body and made it capable of using virtual, electronic, and mechanical tools to control the physical world. Just by thinking. This book tells the story of those experiments and how they have changed our understanding of brain function.

For the vast majority of people alive today, the full impact of our research with BMIs will be felt primarily in the medical arena. Unraveling the brain’s intricate workings by building advanced BMIs will lead to the development of amazing new therapies and cures for those afflicted by devastating neurological disorders. Such patients will be allowed to regain mobility and the sense and feeling in an otherwise lame body through a variety of neuroprosthetics, devices the size of a modern heart pacemaker that harvest healthy brain electrical activity to coordinate the contractions of a silk-thin wearable robot, a vest as delicate as a second skin but as protective as a beetle’s exoskeleton—a suit capable of supporting a paralyzed person’s weight and making formerly immobile bodies roam, run, and once again exult in exploring the world freely.

Yet, BMI applications promise to reach way beyond the borders of medicine. I believe future generations will be in a position to enact deeds and experience sensations that few today can imagine, let alone verbalize. BMIs may transform the way we interact with the tools we fabricate and how we communicate with one another and with remote environments and worlds. To grasp what this future world may look like, you first need to picture how the execution of a few of our daily routines will change radically when our brain’s electrical activity acquires the means to roam freely around the world pretty much like radio waves sail above us today. For a moment, imagine living in a world where people use their computers, drive their cars, and communicate with one another simply by thinking. No need for cumbersome keyboards or hydraulic steering wheels. No point in relying on body movements or spoken language to express one’s intentions to act upon the world.

In this new brain-centered world, such newly acquired neurophysiological abilities will seamlessly and effortlessly extend our motor, perceptual, and cognitive skills to the point that human thoughts can be efficiently and flawlessly translated into the motor commands needed to produce either the minute manipulations of a nanotool or the complex maneuvers of a sophisticated industrial robot. In that future, back at your beach house, sitting in your favorite chair facing your favorite ocean, you may one day effortlessly chat with any of a multitude of people anywhere in the world over the Internet without typing or uttering a single word. No muscle contraction involved. Just by thinking.

If that is not enticing enough, how about experiencing all the sensations aroused by touching the surface of a different planet, millions of miles away, without leaving your living room? Or even better, how would you feel if you could access your ancestral memory bank and readily download the thoughts of one of your forefathers and create, through his most intimate impressions and vivid memories, an encounter you both would have never shared otherwise? That is just a glimpse of what living in a world beyond the boundaries imposed upon the brain by the body may bring to our species.

Such wonders will soon no longer be the stuff of science fiction. This world is starting to take shape before our very eyes, right here and right now. And to become immersed in it, as Dr. Timo-Iaria would say, all you have to do is just follow the music that begins playing on the very next page.

Excerpted from Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines – and How It Will Change Our Lives by Miguel Nicolelis. Copyright © Miguel Nicolelis, 2012. All rights reserved.

Miguel Nicolelis is a Brazilian scientist, physician and Duke School of Medicine Professor in Neuroscience at Duke University, best known for his pioneering work surrounding brain-machine interface technology. He and his colleagues at Duke University implanted electrode arrays into a monkey’s brain that were able to detect the monkey’s motor intent and thus able to control reaching and grasping movements performed by a robotic arm.

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