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Playing With The Mind

Aired March 10, 2013 - 14:29   ET


MIGUEL NICOLELIS, NEUROSCIENTIST: Today we're going to show examples of brain machine interfaces that you can only see in this laboratory. Nobody in the world can do what you're going to see here. She's playing with her mind. Look at that.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST (on camera): So this is her doing this right here?


GUPTA: Computers and robots powered by your thoughts.

NICOLELIS: It sounds like a movie. It sounds like Space Odyssey.

GUPTA: A well-renowned scientist unlocking the language of the brain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some people think oh, you're doing brain- machine interfaces, you're going to read my mind. And that's really not what we're doing here. What we're trying to do is extract information from the brain to move things to help people regain mobility that they've lost or maybe never had.

GUPTA: His name is Miguel Nicolelis. In his mind control of exoskeleton, his sort of vertical wheelchair is the cutting edge of a new field called neuro-prosthetics.

NICOLELIS: It went from an idea that was impossible when I was first injured ten years ago, to probable, to inevitable.


GUPTA: But helping people walk again is just one of his passions.


NICOLELIS: Science for sure is one of them. Education is the other, you know, and soccer.


GUPTA: Now he's scheming to combine all three.


NICOLELIS: So I went to the Brazilian government and said what about if we shock the world.


GUPTA: His plan? Have a paralyzed team kick off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and teach the world that science knows no bounds.


NICOLELIS: And now we are in a race. We're in an 18-month race to try to get that demonstration going.


GUPTA: Buckle up, you're about to meet Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian visionary on the fast track to the future. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


NICOLELIS: Welcome to the primate lab at the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University. This is actually the place where this idea of linking brains to robots was invented. We call it brain- machine interfaces.

My name is Miguel Nicolelis and I'm a neuroscientist. Brain machine interface literally means connecting living brain tissue with artificial devices. These can be mechanical, electronic and even computational devices. This connection is literal.

Our brains are made of cells. Circuits formed by cells. So we have about 100 billion cells interconnected in our brains. This narrows they communicate with one another through electrical signals, that's our memories are built. Our emotions are created. That's how we move our body. How we sense the world around us.

It's all through the same basic alphabet and language. And in the case of primates, we are able to show that you can read the signals and send them to devices. And these devices will move according to the voluntary intention of the primate.

So what you see here is the eagle's view of the top of an implant in a monkey head. Each one of these is a connector. With wires that are implanted in different brain regions, OK?

This is one of the probes. This is a three-dimensional recording device. These are the connectors, so when we put our wireless microchip, as you're going to see in a moment. The signals can be broadcast. We see this popcorn sound in the back.

GUPTA: It does sound like popcorn. So what are we looking at here?

NICOLELIS: This is actually a brainstorm, the real one, the real type.

GUPTA: By brainstorm, you mean --

NICOLELIS: A burst of electrical signals coming from hundreds of neurons over time. This is the alphabet of the brain.

GUPTA: Is it difficult to work with primates? Obviously a lot of people bring up the concerns about doing animal studies overall. What has been your experience?

NICOLELIS: For us it has been for these two decades, we have never had any type of problem. The monkeys actually they play these video games as a kid. And when they realize they can play a game without moving at all, just standing up and staring at something and they get oranges, they start cooing.

GUPTA: So this is her doing this right now?


GUPTA: She is basically trying to put the cursor.

NICOLELIS: She has it put the cursor inside the ball and she's just -- there, she's not doing anything but drinking juice and controlling the cursor, of course, with her brain. We give her a sign that juice is available and look -- there she goes, how fast.

GUPTA: Fast.

NICOLELIS: That was the biggest -- I think the biggest surprise 10 years ago. When the monkeys realized they can get the reward without contracting their muscles, they just stop and continue to imagine the movements they want to make and the computer will do the rest.

GUPTA: Do you remember the first time you saw that, where you -- what was it like?

NICOLELIS: That was with our favorite monkey, Aurora, and we put a joy stick in front of Aurora, she was playing the game like any monkey does and all of a sudden we removed the joystick and we let her figure out.

We connected the brain machine interface meaning the brain activity could now go to the computer and control the robotic arm in the other room and all of a sudden she starts playing the game and got free juice like a good Brazilian, drinking free juice for nothing. No movement, no work and it was unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the second that I dove in, my chin hit the bottom of the pool and my head snapped back with such force that it shattered my C3/C4 vertebrae. I was completely awake, completely conscious and paralyzed.




NICOLELIS: So brain machine interface, they were created in this lab first to study the properties, the physiological properties of the brain. We wanted to understand how large populations of brain cells interact to generate behavior. But the moment we started, we realized instantaneously that there was a tremendous potential application for rehabilitation in severely paralyzed patients.

FRANCESCO CLARK: I had a spinal cord injury 10 years ago in a pool diving accident. The second that I dove in, my chin hit the bottom of the pool and my head snapped back with such force that it shattered by C3/C4 vertebrae. I was completely awake, completely conscious and paralyzed.

GUPTA: That leads to a pretty big potential moment here. You're imagining about a year from now, what do you helping?

NICOLELIS: Well, we are hoping to demonstrate the first prototype of lower limb exoskeleton. So this is like a robotic vest with two legs, for a paraplegic patient could wear. And you know, we could use this, this whole idea of linking brains to robotic device to get a young Brazilian adult to actually open the World Cup by giving the kickoff of the competition.

CLARK: To imagine a teenage girl wheel herself on to the field, then get up and run, that's fantastic.

NICOLELIS: So the person wears the robotic vest and he or she will use his or her brain activity to actually control the movements directly of these vests, and the vest will provide some sort of tactile feedback to the person like temperature, fine touch. The concept is to get the signals translated into a language, electrical signals that the brain can interpret.

GUPTA: People think of the motor thing, but actually having the sensation back, when you look at walking, for example, how important is that?

NICOLELIS: It's essential. It's very important to know when you're touching the ground so you don't fall. And it's also very important to know when you're using your hands, you need to know how much force you have to apply.

CLARK: You know, you're talking about daily activities that mean real independence for people that are now dependant on somebody else to help them.

NICOLELIS: When you see here is the first prototype of the exoskeleton. These are two legs, pneumatic actuators so we dress the monkey with the exoskeleton and the monkey learns to walk according to what is seen on the screen.

KATIE ZHUANG, PH.D. STUDENT, DUKE UNIVERSITY: Once the monkey is trained to think about these walking movements, we can actually have the monkey control this exoskeleton using its thoughts alone without actually moving its legs.

NICOLELIS: But we have to build a human device that we are in the process of doing. We also have to basically get the best possible brain-derived signal to control this exoskeleton. Now we are in a race, you know, we are in an 18-month race to try to get a demonstration going.

GUPTA: How good is the brain machine interface going to get do you think over the next several years?

NICOLELIS: I think all is going to depend on how many cells we can record simultaneously. If we can get to 50,000 -- 40,000, 50,000 simultaneously, we're going to see a big shift because we really want to have a full body exoskeleton controlled by brain activity.

GUPTA: Maybe somebody who is quadriplegic, for example?

NICOLELIS: Yes, somebody that is quadriplegic, somebody with ALS, people with other neurodegenerative disorders.

CLARK: It went from an idea that was impossible when I was first injured ten years ago to probable, to inevitable.

NICOLELIS: In our lifetime, we'll be walking in New York and we'll see a person walking on the streets that could not walk before. I think in our lifetime we'll see that.

GUPTA: It kind of gives me shivers.

NICOLELIS: Me, too, yes. I've been waiting for that for 30 years so I think we will be able to see it.


GUPTA: Still ahead, forget typing -- how mind control computers will transform the way we live. But first, Miguel reveals the secret to effective science education. It's called having fun.



NICOLELIS: I think that we underestimate the power of passion in everything that we do. Scientists don't like to talk about this. They think that science is not, you know, a human activity. I disagree totally, the Latin view of science. I think science is art.

I was educated in Brazil and I went to the United States because the United States was the only place where I could fulfill my scientific dreams. And then I got to 10 years ago, I look in the mirror and said, it's about time to give something back to the place that allow me this journey.

This is our main institute for brain research in the natal project. The north is to Brazil in 2002 when we first landed here had the worst human development index of Brazil as a whole. And you had pockets of poverty in this region that you couldn't believe it. Go for me it's a sense of equity, of you know, there are too many lives in Sao Paolo, already. If you put it here, you are making something really unique.

We thought that it would be fundamental to demonstrate that we could bring to natal, to the northeast of Brazil, infrastructure of this caliber and start producing science that can compete with any neuroscience institute in the world.


NICOLELIS: We want it establish a different type of model of science, science as an agent of social transformation. For that we created an entire new concept of education.

We are in the Anita Garibaldi Health Center for Women and Children so that's the first step of our education for life program. The reason we call this the first step is because as neurobiologists we know that during pregnancy, you have a critical period of formation of the baby's brain.

And if something goes wrong there, there's no way to recover. So we open a clinic that oversees today about 12,000 appointments, pre- natal care appointments a year. It's all public, all free.


NICOLELIS: The death of a woman here is a tremendous tragedy not only for the immediate family, but the surrounding community. In five years since the clinic has opened, we have been able to reduce the mortality rate from 80 deaths for 100,000 deliveries. Close to eight, just with straightforward pre-natal care.

So this has changed the dynamics, around us, but also has allowed babies to be born with much fewer neurological problems. So we have 600 students in Natal, 400 students here in Macaiba. Our two schools here are after-school programs.

The students go to a regular public school where they follow the national curriculum. But then they come to us, we have robotics, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science and art and history and language. We mix science with all of these.

And the kids here continuously experimenting so much so that when the former president of Brazil came to visit us, President Lula, one of our girls was giving him a t-shirt and the president said, how do you like this school.

And she said, which school? And he said this one. And she said, this is not a school. School is where I go in the morning. This is the amusement park. And that's what we want to be known for. We are the amusement park.

We want these kids to be happy. The central goal of this school is to allow the kids to fulfill their human potential and to get out of their door and say this was the best experience of my life. This changed my life.

Now that we've learned a lot about how to educate children using science and learned how to provide health care for women, all of these activities are going to coalesce, converge into the campus of the brain. The first school in Brazil we'll provide schooling from birth to high school, full-time schooling the whole day.

So you have the one wing for the zero to four years old, a second wing for elementary school and a third wing for high school. Next to this school, we have the new neuroscience institute. It's a building with 140,000 square feet, four floors, laboratories, computer centers, imaging center.

Everything that will allow us to work at the edge of neuroscience and neuroengineering and we want to close this triangle with women's hospital. We created an entire chain that goes from pre-natal care all the way to research at the level of any brain research institute in the world.

I do all that I do here in Brazil as a volunteer. As a private- public partnership, so part of the money is private, part of the money comes from the federal government in Brazil.

The key issue is for us to demonstrate that science can be such a powerful drive for changing the human being and economic conditions in the region. This has to become a strategic investment for Brazil in this part of the country and that's what's happening.




NICOLELIS: I swear I became a scientist that night. Space was the big deal and my grandmother help immediate to get as much information as you could get in Brazil in the '60s about Apollo program.

And in fact, one thing that I carried with me when I moved to the United States 25 years ago and I still have it is this map of the moon that she got me after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I can see my pencil marks and I know that here between the two seas, there's the Alberto Crater, the only Brazilian who has been named on the moon.

You may say there's no connection between neuroscience and space, to some degree, there is. The more I read about 100 billion galaxies in the universe, I start realizing that this is a universe comparable to the one that is above our heads. In the next 10, 20 years, we're going to see pretty much brain-robotic interfaces have an impact.

As we become more efficient with brain activity with non-invasive technologies, we will see applications in the computer industry. You'll be able to control your computer just by thinking. Once you liberate the brain, brain activity from the physical limits of the body, you not necessarily control devices that are like the body.

Imagine if you have a nuclear disaster, you cannot send humans there, but you can send robots, very strong and powerful robots controlled by your brain activity that will go there and basically actuate your thoughts to clean up the place, the devices can be on another planet for that matter.

So you're basically scaling for time and space, once you eliminate the brain from the physical constraints of our own bodies.

A couple of years ago we sent signals from a monkey brain to Japan to make a robot walk. It's the first transcontinental computer interface. The monkey was walking here at Duke, imagining the movements. The brain activity went to Cuba and we got the robot to walk that first shows the scaling of force.

Because a huge robot was being controlled by a five-kilogram little monkey here at Duke. It also shows the concept of scaling space, the motor commands were being generated here, but the action was being produced across the planet in Japan.

The other is time. This transmission of brain activity to these devices can be done faster than the normal time that it takes for my own brain to send commands to my muscles and my body to produce a behavior. And eventually, I think that this is going to be the basis of a complete new way of communication.

In this lab we can see animals learning to communicate with other animals, just by sending brain signals, that's what we call a brain- to-brain interface. You have people who have speech impairments because of strokes, tumors or lesions on the brain.

And this is a prototype of what could be a new way to for these patients to communicate. Arthur Clarke predicted that it's brain-to- brain communication will happen in 3001, it's 1,000 years from now, I think we're going to do it a little faster.

GUPTA: What do you dream about? Is there some grand dream for you besides soccer?

NICOLELIS: Besides playing for the Brazilian national team? Yes. I actually dream of being able to keep doing this for the rest of my life.

ZHUANG: It's a lot of fun to be here. Actually it's an exciting time and I think that this field is going to pretty much explode in the coming years because of its potential to help a lot of people.

CLARK: Thank God there are people that are working this hard in research and thank God there are people who are so much smarter than I would have imagined.

NICOLELIS: I don't think I'll ever be done. It's the biggest life adventure you can have, in my opinion, is to keep seeking this truth that you know deep inside, that you're never going to get, but it's the journey that matters. It never ends. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: Whatever mind-boggling advances Miguel's journey may bring us in the future, he's already giving thousands hope for a better life in the northeast of Brazil and right here at home. That's what earns him a spot on the next list.

I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching us. See you back next week.