Of Cyborg Monkeys and New Hope for Amputees

 

The innovative breeze of 2013 carries a particularly interesting development in the field of Neuroscience.

A joint venture funded by DARPA, composed of a group of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, revealed promising results in a recent study when monkeys were successful in moving a robotic arm using solely the power of their mind.

The practical application and climax of this study, as if it weren’t exciting enough already, finally arrived this January, when a woman was able to operate an artificial arm in a wide range of angles using her brain alone.

Related Article: Robotic Legs Controlled by Your Brain

For the past 11 years researchers have been conducting a series of experiments involving the motor-cortex, a part of the brain which facilitates movement. A tiny electrode array was implanted in the motor cortices of monkeys, enabling the scientists to read neural activity in the form of electrical spikes. Using a model based approach, the scientists were able to calculate the desired instantaneous hand and arm direction based on the activity of a few hundred neurons.

Reading brain-activity enabled the scientists to accurately move the artificial limb in the correct direction and angle, exactly the way the brain normally signals a healthy flesh and blood arm. In this way they trained the monkeys to move the arms through biofeedback.

Related Article: Robotic Sense and Feel

The monkeys were chosen as test subjects due to their similar brain structure to humans. However, it can’t be helped but to wonder: What is the secret for convincing a monkey to operate a robotic arm? The answer is simple: Marshmallows.

By hanging the treat just out of the monkey’s reach, far enough so that they would need to use the robotic arm to reach it, scientists were able to “train” the monkeys in moving the robotic arm in a space and they were able to teach the monkeys to grip their treat.

The next question that comes to mind is how many monkey-arms were removed due to the experiment? Animal rights fighters – rest assured; No monkeys were hurt in the process.

Related Article: Bionic Hand That Can Feel

After a decade of data-mining, the scientists are ready to implant a brain computer interface (BCI), an electrode array, in 53 year old Jan Scheuermann who suffers from quadriplegia; completely paralyzed from the neck down. The outcome of a not-so-simple surgery was optimistic news to all.

For many amputees, lacking an arm does not necessarily mean the brain is damaged as well. The successful experiment described above makes it very easy for a person to control a prosthetic arm, as all that needs to be done is  to ‘think’ which way the arm should move, much in the same way you are operating the arm you are using to scroll down and read this article.

Jan’s reports of headaches quickly disappeared, and no sooner did she prove to be able to feed herself, and even high-five Professor Andrew B. Schwartz, a senior figure in the research. According to Jan, feeding herself was:

One small nibble for a woman, one giant bite for BCI.

While the results of the research are certainly a breakthrough, leaving neuroscientists to fantasize about a world of possibilities opening up, major flaws cannot be ignored.

Implanting the electrode array requires invasive surgery, involving a temporary removal of part of the skull. The degree of control created by the invasive BCI (Brain Computer Interface) is limited by the number of neurons recorded, currently at a few hundred. Non-invasive methods of reading brain signals, such as EEG, offer a much lower information rate and require much more training.

Another flaw that is evident by observing Ms. Scheuermann’s arm movement is a poor eye-arm coordination. Neuroscientists are still looking for a reasonable explanation for Ms. Scheuermann inability to catch a falling object while observing it. Curiously enough, she is able to do so when not looking directly at the object.

Regardless of those facts, the sweet taste of success should not be bittered: this is still the first time a human has been able to operate a robotic arm in so many degrees of freedom, using only the power of the mind.

So what’s next? Killer-coding-ninja monkeys using telepathy? Anyone?

Sources:

NYTimes: Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own

Lancet: Nueroprosthetic Control by Individual with Tetraplegia 

Invasive BCI UPMC: Woman with Quadraplegia Feeds Herself

Nature: Cortical Control of a Prosthetic Arm for Self-Feeding

Killer Coding Ninja Monkeys

 

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The Most Dangerous Animal, and How We Can Defeat it

When I envision the most dangerous animal in the world I picture, like most people, a shark strapped to a starved bear coated in Valyrian steel. Some of the more clever humans among us may tell us that WE are in fact the biggest threat to ourselves.  Well, as news to all you General Zaroffs out there, there’s a much more serious and clandestine danger than humans out there, and it is lurking the skies with a stark mad craving for blood.

 

 A. aegypti, the Dengue Dealer.

A. aegypti, the Dengue Dealer. (www.impe-qn.org.vn)

Vampires! Scientifically known as mosquitoes.  Throughout history, mosquitoes have killed more humans than all wars and plagues combined. Every year, there are 200-300 million cases of malaria and 50-100 million cases of dengue fever worldwide, diseases that are easy to catch and highly fatal.

With malaria, you can head to the hospital and be treated with antibiotics relatively quickly (though malaria mutates rapidly and is becoming immune to just about every drug proven to be effective at a rapid rate). Dengue on the other hand, known as breakbone fever (because it feels like every bone in your body is shattering) is a completely different story. Unlike malaria, there is not a single drug proven to directly seek out and destroy the dengue virus.  If you get it, you are stuck riding out the ordeal in a hospital.  If you get it again, rather than becoming immune, you will likely die.  If you get it a third time, unless you are Bruce Willis from Unbreakable, you have absolutely no chance. The worst part?  Despite huge efforts to rid areas of the mosquito that carries the dengue virus, as seen by this frequently updated, interactive map from the CDC, it is spreading at a rapid rate.

In this eye-opening TED talk,  Biotech entrepreneur Hadyn Perry asks the question: why, with all our advances in technology, have we not succeeded in destroying the single greatest killer of humanity?  Why are we treating the symptoms and not aiming for that tiny hole leading to the main power source that is always built in to every death star? Why can’t we just kill all the mosquitos?

Most people will point out that ridding the world of the mosquito legion scourge would leave a gap in the global food chain, causing irreparable damage to eco-systems around the world. Despite the rationality of this argument ecologists are very certain that the removal of mosquitoes, a species that has existed on the planet for over 100 million years, would have little to no effect on the overall ecology of the planet.  Something would quickly fill the gap left by mosquitoes; everyone would be less itchy, our skin would be deet-free, and the hand of God would come down to give us a well deserved high-five.

So, how do we get rid of mosquitoes forever?  We’ve been hosing down towns and cities with insecticide and pouring larvicide into the planet’s waters for decades and the result has been even more death and disease due to mosquitoes.  As usual, biotechnogoly is the answer.

Hadyn Parry is on the forefront of genetic modification research and he wants the issue of genetic modification, or GM, to stop being so political and start focusing on actual research and results. He has at the ready, a cheap, efficient, proven to work solution for ridding the world of mosquitoes through the use of mosquitoes engineered in the lab.  Through his method of releasing genetically sterile males into the wild, females that mate with these males (which look like the perfect mixture of Edward and Jacob to female mosquitoes) produce sterile offspring.  His team has put this method into practice with remarkable results.  He has reduced mosquito populations in villages throughout the world by over 85% within 4 months, with the mosquito death toll continuing to rise with time.

Imagine a world where you can lay out on a summer’s eve without smelling like a chemical cocktail and bitch slapping yourself repeatedly.  According to Hadyn Parry, this vision of the future is a reality ready and willing to take place.

Take a look at the TED talk below for more information and specifics regarding Parry’s method and ideology.

 

Sources:

http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/General_Zaroff

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dengue_fever

http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Valyrian_steel

http://www.healthmap.org/dengue/index.php

http://www.ted.com/talks/hadyn_parry_re_engineering_mosquitos_to_fight_disease.html

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html