Jim Fleming: How long before you'll be able to upgrade your brain with a computer chip? That brave new world could be just around the corner. Miguel Nikolelis is a professor of neuroscience at Duke University, and the founder of Duke's Center for Neuroengineering. He's also the author of Beyond Boundaries, The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines and how it will change our lives. It begins with his story about an experience he had almost twenty-five years ago, when he was a medical student at the University of SÃ£o Paulo in Brazil.
Miguel Nikolelis: Yeah, that was a pretty busy night in December, in the emergency room of that hospital, the teaching hospital. The University of Sao Paulo is one of the largest in the world, so it looks like a M.A.S.H unit, and you as an intern, you are allowed perhaps a ten minute break in the middle of the night. And I went to the main building in the medical school just to, you know, walk away a little bit from that place and refresh my mind. And all of a sudden I started listening to this beautiful music coming from the second floor. And it was about, I don't know, 2AM and I said, “Well, there's something funny going on here.” And I just literally followed the music. And that's when I met what would be one of the most influential people in my life. They became, later on, my doctoral advisor. Doctor Cesar Ti Maria, who was the father of neuroscience in Brazil and was just preparing a lecture.
Fleming: And he advised you to follow the music, didn't he? Ti Maria really believed in the connection between music and neurology.
Nikolelis: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, he told me that one day we would be able to listen to the music of the neurons, the symphonies that the brain produces, and actually he was right. Three decades later that's exactly what we do.
Fleming: In fact you talk about that. Your pursuit of the symphonies of brain cells. What have you discovered is the connection between music and the way our brains work?
Nikolelis: Well, essentially it's the same kind of coding language. If you listen to an individual note, out of context, it carries very little meaning. But when you get all notes together in a particular context, in a particular flow, and you have all the different instruments playing together, you generate something that is very powerful. You generate information that carries a lot of meaning. And for the brain it's the same thing. If you listen to the electrical signals of a single cell, you get very little out of it individually. But if you start combining these firing of many cells, hundreds, thousands, you start getting literally a symphony that carries meaning, that determines our behavior.
Fleming: What does it sound like when you've recorded it?
Nikolelis: You have to be really obsessed and impassioned with the brain to appreciate that music, because it's like making popcorn under a bad AM signal.
Nikolelis: But I guarantee to you when you listen to it for as many years as I had, it sounds better than any Verdi opera. And it's very very moving to see, for instance when you're talking to a patient in a surgical room, to listen to his or her brain, it gives you goosebumps.
Fleming: What's fascinating about this in a way is that it makes so much sense. And it is the kind of thing that we've always said 'five people can do much more than five individual people' and so forth. But we didn't apply it to neurology for a long time. I mean, neuroscientists believed for a hundred years or so that certain parts of the brain were specialized for certain functions only, but you've discovered that that's not the case. What's really going on?
Nikolelis: Yeah, this is a major debate. It has been brewing as a big storm, intellectual storm, for over almost two hundred years now actually. For the past one hundred years we have focused our attention as neuroscientists to understand the working of a single neuron. And this is fascinating and it's one of the most amazing endeavors of science that ever happened. But in reality what we have found is that the brain works almost like some sort of a democracy, some sort of a neurolodemocracy. You need the vote of lots of cells across many brain areas at the same time to define a particular behavior. And there is a specialization of course in the brain, but this specialization is riding on top of this continuous flow of information that allows areas we use to think, are allocating their resources to a single function, to participate in many functions at the same time. There's a lot of multi-tasking going on inside our heads.
Fleming: The thing you're probably best known for I guess is the pioneering work you've done with the Rhesus monkey Aurora. In fact, there's a whole chapter in your book called 'Freeing Aurora's Brain'. Can you tell me about the day you met Aurora?
Nikolelis: I had had a phone call of a good friend of mine at NI-AGE at Washington. I just briefly mentioned that I needed a new monkey to do the work, and he immediately volunteered to send me Aurora. You know, that was so nice. And just after I hang up I realized, 'Why he is volunteering so quickly to send me a ten thousand dollar monkey?', you know, without any charge. He even said, 'I'll pay the transportation, I'll do whatever'. A few days later I understood why, because Aurora was stubborn like a mule, even though she was a nice, cute Rhesus monkey. And she would not do anything, you know, that we wanted her to do. And she had a moment a few months later, I have no idea what happened but she suddenly clicked, and she started working like, you know, no other monkey I have seen or worked with. My kids tell me that I spend most of my time with the monkeys rather than with them but it's not true. Aurora was special.
Fleming: The way you write about her makes it clear that she is as real to you as a, I was going to say person, but I guess personality would be a better description. You write about her as though you know her inside and out.
Nikolelis: Oh, she was a collaborator, for sure. You meet her everyday, and she greets you every morning with a nice vocalization that you know is only for you, so she was kind enough to personalize them. And you she's intrigued and she's playing those video games with a lot of gusto, a lot of pleasure, and that was really nice to see over every day for several years.
Fleming: So you started by teaching her to play a video game without, I guess, any connection and-
Fleming: And then what?
Nikolelis: Yeah she first learned to use her arm to play a video game with a joystick. You know, she learned several games just using the joystick as any of us would. And then as we record her brain activity, and Aurora was the first one in which we crossed this boundary of a hundred neurons, a hundred cortical neurons recorded simultaneously. As Aurora was learning the game, a different game now, we were recording her brain activity and sending this to computers that were learning to extract from these brain patterns the motor commands that are needed to control a robotic arm, to reproduce the movements that Aurora was making. Because the idea was, in a given moment when this arm was proficient enough, this robotic arm, that by the way was a few feet away from her, she couldn't see the arm, the idea was to remove the joystick, turn on this brain machine interface and let Aurora control the robotic arm that now would be the only way she had to move a computer cursor in the screen and play the video game to get a drop of fruit juice, that, as I mentioned in the book, Aurora would do anything for you if you gave her fruit juice.
Nikolelis: Brazilian orange juice was perfect. And that's what we did. One night, we all realized that that was the time, and we removed the joystick, we turned on the interface and after a few minutes of trying to, you know, figure out what was going on there, Aurora just relaxed her body, stopped moving completely, and then started thinking. And her thoughts made that robotic arm move. The robotic arm controlled the cursor in the computer screen, and played a video game and got her the reward. And the rest is history now.
Fleming: And it didn't matter where the robotic arm was. She didn't have to see it. She could just see the results.
Nikolelis: Absolutely, yeah. If she saw the cursor moving in the right direction, and she found the target that she was supposed to find and got a juice reward, the robotic arm could be on the surface of mars, you know?
Nikolelis: In fact a few years later the robotic device was across the planet and it still worked perfectly, you know, without any problems, yeah.
Fleming: How do these B.M.I.'s, these Brain Machine Interfaces that you use in your research work?
Nikolelis: They are much simpler than we think. They basically operate by reading the combined electrical activity of a sample of brain cells that are recorded, you know, these signals are recorded by hair-like filaments the diameter of a hair, a single hair. So you have tens of hundreds of those that can be implanted a few millimeters deep into the brain, and they work as censors, they detect these electrical signals. So the B.M.I., what it does is to record these raw signals, we call them spacial temporal patterns of brain activity, and then, using mathematical models, combine these activities in particular ways so we can extract the motor commands that are imbedded in these patterns that the brain created. Because as you know, the brain is creating activity that is going to produce behaviors in the future, half a second in the future. So we have to operate in that window of time. We have to extract these motor commands, transform them into digital signals, and then broadcast them to an future actuator that will generate the movements that that particular brain is willing to produce. So we are enacting the voluntary motor will of a brain in a future device.
Fleming: I don't think you're right about this but I'm curious because I think everyone who is listening will wonder, can you record the activity of the brain and make the arm move again without Aurora's participation?
Nikolelis: Oh yeah, we actually download that and store it, so we could play it offline, sure. And we now recently, more recently, discovered that we can send messages back to the brain. And we can establish a dialog, a bidirectional dialog between the brain and the device, and that's the reason the title of the chapter is 'Freeing Aurora's Brain', because I literally, really believe that we are starting to free the brain from the physical constraints of the body.
Fleming: But this changes everything if you think about it. A robotic arm that does not give you feedback means that you would not know automatically how hard you were squeezing a ball, for instance. But the feedback lets you have the same kind of information you get from your fingers, I suppose.
Nikolelis: Yeah, essential, exactly. That's the type of tactile and perceptive feedback that we are starting to produce and send back directly to the brain, because we don't send this through the skin or or to the surface of the body or to any tendon or muscle. No, we send the signals, now translated into electrical messages back directly to the brain tissue. What we realize is that a monkey can control a body avatar. In a virtual world. And as that avatar encounters a virtual object that has some kind of texture, information about that texture can be transmitted instantaneously back to the brain of the subject and the animal will perceive what that it is that he's touching.
Fleming: What kinds of things do you see happening now? I know you have done some work with what you call exoskeletons â€“ membrane like machines that patients can use and activate?
Nikolelis: Yes that's what we are working, actually at this very moment, we have formed an international, a non-profit international consortium to try to make a quadriplegic patient regain full body mobility by first wearing a full body robotic suit, as you said, an exoskeleton, that will allow this patient to move again, both upper and lower limbs, locomote and do most of the basic motor behaviors just by thinking. Just by using his or her own voluntary motor thoughts, that will be translated into the commands that we require for these exoskeletons to carry the patient's body into the world again.
Fleming: Miguel Nikolelis is the author of Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines and How It Will Change Our Lives.