Rhesus Macaque by Jakub Hałun
Enhanced Humans

Brain-Sensing Implant Lets Monkeys Transcribe Shakespeare

A new way to communicate could be on the horizon.

Kristin HouserSeptember 13th 2016

Slow and Steady

They haven’t recreated the complete works of Shakespeare just yet, but a pair monkeys at Stanford University are one step closer, thanks to a new brain implant.

As part of a study published today by the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, scientists at Stanford University implanted a multi-electrode array into the brains of rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), a species of Old World monkeys.

The array can read the brain signals that are responsible for directing arm and hand movements and interpret those signals into cursor movements, which allowed the monkeys to mentally select individual letters of the alphabet from an on-screen keyboard. The monkeys were able to retype letters shown to them from news articles and works by Shakespeare at a rate of 12 words per minute.

From Their Brain To Ours?

The study could lead to an improved means of communication for the severely disabled, as current assistive technologies (i.e., eye or muscle tracking) are both challenging and time-consuming.

“Our results demonstrate that this interface may have great promise for use in people,” study lead author and Stanford postdoctoral fellow Paul Nuyujukian told FACTOR. “It enables a typing rate sufficient for a meaningful conversation.”

Earlier versions of this technology had been implanted in humans, but because the humans’ minds could wander, the typing rates couldn’t be accurately estimated. Testing the updated version with monkeys allowed the researchers to better estimate the potential typing rate, which could eventually be improved even further through the integration of autocomplete technologies.

Even at the current rate, though, the Stanford team’s results are an important step toward improving assistive communication technology for people.

“The natural progression of clinical research is starting with preclinical animal model studies, as this paper is, and demonstrating the promise for human benefit, at which point the technology slowly transitions,” explained Nuyujukian.

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