The Current

How brain-machine connections can help paraplegics move again

Researchers are connecting human brains via computer and have seen one person's brain move another's body. The meeting of mind over machine is a breakthrough that could help paralyzed patients rewire their brains, but it comes with ethical issues.
Exoskeletons allow patients to move their bodies using only electrical signals from their brains to control the machine. (Courtesy of Miguel Nicolelis )

Read story transcript

The brain is seen as the seat of the human self in many cultures. But researches are increasingly looking at connecting our brains to machines, and even to each other — raising questions about what happens to our individual identity when it's directly connected to others. 

New research shows that brain-machine interfaces can help paralyzed patients rewire their brains, and learn to move again. 

Neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis is behind the experiment. He runs a lab in Sao, Brazil, where his work was done. Eight paralyzed patients trained their brains with virtual reality, and then using an exoskeleton.

"Paraplegic patients learned to walk again by literally imagining that they wanted to move and sending this voluntary motor desire to a machine that could enact that will," Nicolelis tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"After two and a half years of training... all these patients have been upgraded from complete paralysis to partial paraplegic."

His ongoing research takes the next step — the brains of paralyzed patients are connected via computer to the brains of physiotherapist with the hope that brains that have forgotten how to move lower limbs can regain this knowledge from a healthy brain.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has been musing that brain-connecting technology will grow to the point where we will be able to send our thoughts and emotions, in pure form, directly to another person's mind.

But Nicolelis says we're definitely not at that stage and in fact the brain is so mysterious that this may never happen.

"We don't even know how to define a thought, let alone our emotions or our memories," Nicolelis tells Tremonti.

Beyond that, he's concerned about commercial interest in this technology giving a distorted image of what brain machine interfacing can do  — and putting scientific research at risk.

InteraXon co-founder, Ariel Garten demonstrates using the Muse headband - a device that helps with meditation by measuring electrical activity in the brain and sending the data to a smartphone. (Karin Marley/CBC)

Neuroethicist Karen Rommelfanger understands why many people find the promise of connecting brains so compelling.

"The idea of being able to touch somebody really far away — touch someone's thoughts from far away — is an exciting appeal."

But she says that both in science and on the consumer side, there are questions that need to be asked along the way.

Rommelfanger is part of the neuroethics workgroup of the U.S. government's Brain Initiative, looking at the ethics of brain research. She worries that brain connection could lead to an overdependence of technology, and raises fundamental questions about our sense of self.

"Is the technology going to remain a tool for us...a tool that helps us realize ourselves? Or does it become a collaborator in the end?," says 

Commercial products that read brain activity such as Muse — a headband that uses sensors to measure electrical activity in the brain and sends data to your smartphone, with the aim of helping users work on their meditation skills — are proliferating on the market.

Ariel Garten, co-founder of Interaxon — the company that makes the Muse headband — embraces what the technology can bring to our sense of being.

"Technology is an amazing enabler for humanity and the human experience and enhancing it in all kinds of great ways."

But we can't lose sight that the important thing is the human, not the technology."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.