Scientists at Duke University are working on brain implants that could lead to a full body suit that would let the paralyzed walk again.
Publishing their work on Wednesday, lead researcher Professor Miguel Nicolelis and his team showcased their work by demonstrating it with two rhesus monkeys that had been implanted with electrodes to their brains. The monkeys were able to manipulate an electric hand using brain power alone.
"Someday in the near future, quadriplegic patients will take advantage of this technology," said Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University in North Carolina.
The team's objective is for paraplegics "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."
The experiment showed that the team was able to provide the sensation of touch directly to the monkeys' brains. The monkeys were able to distinguish between different objects by sensing their different textures, but only through the sensations in their brains.
"Such an interaction between the brain and a virtual avatar was totally independent of the animal's real body, because the animals did not move their real arms and hands, nor did they use their real skin to touch the objects and identify their texture," Nicolelis said.
"It's almost like creating a new sensory channel through which the brain can resume processing information that cannot reach it anymore through the real body and peripheral nerves."
This breakthrough could lead to a prosthetic that could send bursts of electric information to a paralyzed person's brain. The prosthetic would enable the paralyzed patient to experience the sensation of touch again.
"Ideally, the long-term goal would be a prosthetic that would send all the sensory information - touch, position, temperature - to the arm that goes into, say, drinking a cup of coffee," said Kip Ludwig, program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "This is an important step, but there's a lot of work yet to be done."
The team is hoping that in a few years they would have a full robotic external suit ready for use. In fact Nicolelis and his colleagues are hoping to introduce the first exoskeleton at the opening match of football's 2014 World Cup in Brazil.