Researchers at Northwestern University recently completed a study in which they were able to restore monkeys' paralyzed hands to "near-normal function" by inserting electrodes into their brains and electronically triggering neural activity.
The team, led by physiologist Lee Miller, is hopeful that the system could one day be trialed in humans whose hands have become paralyzed.
Here's how the study worked:
Healthy monkeys' brain activity was recorded as they dropped a small ball into a tube. Researchers then used an anesthetic to paralyze the monkeys' wrists and hand muscles, and artificially triggered the same ball-dropping motion via electrodes implanted in the animals' brains.
Using this method, the paralyzed monkeys successfully placed the ball into the tube in 80 percent of attempts. (Without the neural triggers, they couldn't even pick up the ball.)
Best of all, after the anesthesia wore off, the monkeys were back to their old selves, typing up Shakespeare with an infinite number of their friends.
According to New Scientist, the benefit of this electrode system over the control restoration techniques currently used in paralyzed humans is that it bypasses the spinal cord, which could make it useful for nerve-damaged individuals. Other techniques restore only basic hand control (the ability to clench or unclench a fist) to people who have lost control of their arms due to spinal cord damage.
For the record, it seems like these Northwestern scientists weren't the first ones to stumble onto this breakthrough. The New Scientist article concludes with a great burn match between competing researchers.
Chet Moritz at the University of Washington in Seattle developed a similar system in 2008. He says the new results represent only a minor advance, but Miller counters that the new system uses more brain electrodes than Moritz's – 100 rather than 12 – allowing better control.
"Yeah, I already developed this exact same thing four years ago."
"Uh, guess what, dummy, 100 is more than 12 so SHOVE IT."
[Image via Getty]