Dr. Miguel Nicolelis knew he had nailed it when the monkey stopped using her arm to play the computer game.
An implanted device had allowed the monkey to control the game using only her thoughts, Nicolelis and colleagues report in the Public Library of Science Biology journal yesterday.
And changes in the way the monkey's brain cells worked suggested the brain was physically adjusting to the device, they reported in the new online science journal.
Nicolelis hopes the device will eventually allow paralyzed patients to regain some ability to use their upper bodies -- virtually, if not physically.
"The monkey suddenly realized that she didn't need to move her arm at all," Nicolelis said.
"Her arm muscles went completely quiet, she kept the arm at her side and she controlled the robot arm using only her brain and visual feedback."
Three years ago, Nicolelis and colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina reported that they had allowed a monkey to move a robotic arm using only her thoughts and implanted electrodes. But the monkey continued to move her arm.
In the latest experiment, they said two monkeys figured out what was happening and played a computer game using thoughts alone.
The group has started working with a small group of human patients, but Nicolelis said he could not give any details yet.
Potential users of the technology include 200,000 people in the US alone who have partial or nearly total permanent paralysis. An estimated 11,000 people a year suffer severe spinal cord injuries, for instance, and sufferers of Parkinson's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, may also become paralyzed.
"We hope the brain will learn to adapt to the devices and incorporate them as if they were the patient's own limbs," Nicolelis said.
His team is working to miniaturize the device so it can be useful to a human patient outside a laboratory setting.
"There is certainly a great deal of science and engineering to be done to develop this technology and to create systems that can be used safely in humans," he added.
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