Duke Health Logo Monkeys are touted to be our nearest ancestors since the evolutionary days, so analyzing their actions could give experts some clue on human mechanisms. In a research conducted by professionals from the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering, 2 trained monkeys seemed to use their brain to move an avatar hand and recognize the texture of objects they could see.

Without any other body movement, the monkeys supposedly made use of electrical brain activity to position the virtual hands of a specimen into the platform of virtual objects and when brought in contact, they could gauge the differences in textures too.

“Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology not only to move their arms and hands and to walk again, but also to sense the texture of objects placed in their hands, or experience the nuances of the terrain on which they stroll with the help of a wearable robotic exoskeleton,” commented leader Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering.

The virtual objects used in the study looked identical, however their texture was different and could only be identified if the monkeys examined them with virtual hands which is regulated directly by the brain’s electrical activity.

The texture of the objects was disclosed as a sequence of tiny electrical signals transited to the animal’s brain. Three distinct electrical patterns were relative to each of the 3 different object textures. Since no part of the animal’s body was used in the process of brain-machine-brain interface, these trials look promising for patients with paralysis due to spinal cord lesion. Such individuals may exploit this technology to restore their sense of touch apart from regaining mobility.

Nicolelis added that this is the first experiment to show that the brain controls a virtual arm which analyzes objects while the brain receives electrical feedback signals. The latter explains the fine texture of objects touched by the monkey’s newly attained virtual hand.

This communication between the brain and a virtual avatar did not use any part of the animal’s body. They did not move their real arms and skin to feel objects and comprehend their texture. One of the monkeys apparently took just 4 attempts and the other one took 9 before it could locate the right object during each test. The results showed that they were sensing the objects and not just randomly selecting them.

The research is published in the journal, Nature.