Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part report about “The Human Future” as reported by WRAL TechWire’s Allan Maurer. He’s focusing on R&D taking place here in the Triangle, having focused on regional leaders who participated in last weekend’s Moogfest. This report looks at “transhumanism” and neuroengineering.

DURHAM – Seeing paraplegics who haven’t moved their legs in 12 years walk with an exoskeleton and brain-machine interface, or monkeys wired to a mind-interface playing video games is like watching a science fiction film. And much of what’s making this possible is happening “right here at Duke,” says a principal scientist.

“We are in a new era of neurobiology,” Dr. Miquel A. Nicolelis, Duke Medicine professor and co-director of Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering at a Moogfest Transhumanism session in Durham, Thursday.

New methods of connecting the brains of humans, monkeys and rats to prosthetic devices controlling as few as a 100 neurons not only provide great insight into fundamental aspects of neural physiology, they also allow testing of novel neuroprosthetic devices.

  • VIDEO: Watch a report about the neuroengineering interface at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNuntbrwXsM

Nicolelis has investigated how the brains of animals encode sensory and motor information. As a result of his studies he was first to propose and demonstrate that animals and human subjects can utilize their electrical brain activity to directly control neuroprosthetic devices via brain-machine interfaces (BMI).

The Walk Again Project

Nicolelis has discovered a series of key physiological principles that govern the operation of mammalian brain circuits.

Nicolelis and 156 people from 25 countries went to work on the Walk Again Project, trying to make paraplegics walk in November 2013 and by April 2014, they did it. The group worked in labs in Brazil, Kentucky, California, and others globally, with much of the initial and following work done at Duke. To get their cooperation, he held out a carrot on a stick: a ticket to the 2014 Soccer Worldcup where a paraplegic would do the opening kick from a wheelchair, which he did.

The entire project is an example of something that started as pure, abstract idea in science resulting in a real-world benefit, Nicolelis said. The process, initially explored using Rhesus Monkeys in Durham, is called “Directional tuning of cortical neurons.”

The scientists use hairlike microfilaments as sensors in the brain to detect the and guide the “neuron storms” of activity that control specific body-mind reactions but other tests require only equipment outside the skull.

Many surprises

The researchers bumped up against many surprises during the experiments. The brain is always doing things neurobiologists don’t expect, Nicolelis said, such as showing much more elasticity than previously thought.

The brain is so adaptable to the technology, that the researchers gave rats “a new sense.” They gave them the ability to perceive infrared light via touch to find a target and receive a reward.

Monkeys were trained to play video games via a brain-machine device and using a joystick to move a dot to a target and receive a reward in a proof of concept experiment. The researchers found that visual training alone would program the neurons in the interface. They didn’t have to do trials, they could just watch it done successfully.

Monkeys were originally selected because their brains, though a third the size of human brains, have all the same basic areas as human brains.

Then, the researchers moved to experiments with human subjects. In films, you could see the excitement and delight patients felt when they tentatively took a few steps for the first time in many years.

One unexpected finding of that research: Training human paraplegics with even the very worst forms of damage to the spine with the brain-machine interfaces and specially designed exoskeletons to get them on their feet led to significant improvement in their ability to feel sensation and move parts of their body inert for a decade. Some patients saw extraordinary improvement after a year or more of training with BMIs.

The researchers discovered that if a paraplegic has only 5 percent to 25 percent of spine left, about 65 percent of patients, can experience some improvement through the prosthetic brain-machine interfaces. “Neurons become linked to this mechanical device and see it as an extension of itself,” Nicolelis said.

That means 22 million of the world’s paraplegics could see some improvement, he said.

[VIDEOS: Watch several videos about the project at http://www.nicolelislab.net/?p=784 ]

Putting heads together

That also means, among other things, Nicolelis said, that stroke or brain damage victims may be able to retrain parts of their brains and regain function.

The research also explored “brainets,” in which multiple animal or human subjects performed tasks.

WRAL TechWire asked Nicolelis what’s next and if anyone is trying to commercialize these technologies.

“I’m Brazilian,” he said, “Different culture. I don’t think about commercialization.We want to take this to the masses in a nonprofit way.”

Eventually, he said, cheap online training kits may be available to therapists. One therapist hooked up could help thousands of paraplegics or brain injured patients train to recover function no matter where they are if they have Internet access.