BREAKTHROUGH: Scientists Inject Information Directly Into Monkey Brains

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When you stand at a zebra crossing and the traffic light turns green, your brain tells you it is safe to cross the road. This action happens thanks to a chain of events inside your head.

Your eyes relay signals to the visual centers in the back of your brain. After the signals get processed, they travel along a pathway to another region, the premotor cortex, where the brain plans movements, explains The New York Times.

In a new study, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Rochester has shown how it’s possible to “inject information” directly into the brain’s premotor cortex using tiny electrical currents.

Although the research is preliminary, the findings could lead to brain implants for people with strokes, design treatments for people who have some type of brain injury, or develop brain-computer interfaces. Senior author Marc H. Schieber noted:

“Researchers have been interested primarily in stimulating the primary sensory cortices – the somatosensory cortex, visual cortex, and auditory cortex – to input information into the brain. What we are showing here is that you don’t have to be in a sensory-receiving area in order for the subject to have an experience that they can identify.”

A – Monkeys initially performed the reach-grasp-manipulate task instructed by blue LEDs. B – Monkey then learned to perform the same task instructed by ICMS.

In the experiment, the researchers trained two rhesus monkeys to play a game that involved turning four different handles, knobs, and buttons after the LED lights were switched on. If the monkey performed a movement correctly to the assigned target, then a reward was given. The New York Times writes:

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“Eventually the lights went out completely, yet the monkeys were able to use only the signals from the electrodes in their brains to pick the right object and manipulate it for the reward. And they did just as well as with the lights.

“This hints that the sensory regions of the brain, which process information from the environment, can be bypassed altogether. The brain can devise a response by receiving information directly, via electrodes.”

Though the experiment was done using a few electrodes, the discovery and advancements of bypassing the visual cortex and sending information directly to the premotor cortex will someday help doctors to improve the lives of people with damaged neural pathways. First author Kevin A. Mazurek commentes:

“In this study, we show you can expand the neural real estate that can be targeted with therapies. This could be very important for people who have lost function in areas of their brain due to stroke, injury, or other disease. We can potentially bypass the damaged part of the brain where connections have been lost and deliver information to an intact part of the brain.”

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