Monkey uses its mind to control another primate, in tests scientists hope could help paralysed people

The technique has been called a "key step forward"

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The Independent Online

Scientists have developed a way for monkeys to control “avatars” that could be used to help paralysed people move their bodies.

In the tests scientists found that brain signals from the master monkey’s mind could be used to stimulate an avatar’s spinal cord to control its movements.

The findings published in the Nature Communications journal have been called a “key step forward” and could help people who have damaged their spinal cord to the extent that its stops information flowing from the brain to the body.

People with such damage are often left unable to walk or feed themselves, and researchers say that even the smallest amount of movement could dramatically improve a person’s life, the BBC reported.

The scientists from Harvard Medical School in the US envisage their findings could go towards creating machinery to help patients.

As researchers said they could not justify paralysing a monkey for the study, they used a conscious monkey with an implanted brain chip, and an unconscious avatar to be controlled.

During the experiment, the conscious monkey’s movements were mapped according to patterns of electrical activity in its neurons.

The scientists then hooked the avatar’s spinal cord up to 36 electrodes to measure how it moved according to different combinations of stimulation.

In a different test, as the sedated monkey held a joystick, the master thought about moving a cursor up and down.

In 98 per cent of tests, the master could correctly control the avatar's arm.

One of the researchers, Dr Ziv Williams, told the BBC: “The goal is to take people with brain stem or spinal cord paralysis and bypass the injury.

"The hope is ultimately to get completely natural movement, I think it's theoretically possible, but it will require an exponential additional effort to get to that point."

Dismissing claims that the technology could be used to control people’s bodies, Professor Christopher James of University of Warwick told the BBC: ”Some people may be concerned this might mean someone taking over control of someone else's body, but the risk of this is a no-brainer.

“Whilst the control of limbs is sophisticated, it is still rather crude overall, plus of course in an able-bodied person their own control over their limbs remains anyway, so no-one is going to control anyone else's body against their wishes any time soon," he said.

Factors such as the stiffness of people’s muscles when they are paralysed and their fluctuating blood pressure now needs to be taken into account before the technology can be used to help humans