(CBS) Imagine a robotic exoskeleton that restores to quadriplegics not only full movement but also the sense of touch. Scientists say what sounds like science fiction has moved a step closer to reality, thanks to the successful demonstration of so-called brain-machine interfaces.
For the study - published in the journal Nature on Oct. 5 - scientists at Duke University implanted electrodes into the brains of two male rhesus monkeys and then successfully trained the monkeys to use an avatar (virtual) hand to manipulate and feel the texture of "objects" displayed on a computer screen.
"This is the first demonstration of a brain-machine-brain interface that establishes a direct, bidirectional link between a brain and a virtual body," study author Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center and co-director of the Duke Center for Neuroengineering, said in a written statement.
Having trouble envisioning just how the technology might work in the real world? Other researchers likened the sort of prostheses Nicolelis envisions to the prosthetic hand worn by Luke Skywalker in the 1980 movie "The Empire Strikes Back."
"He gets his arm chopped off, and an hour later, they put a prosthetic limb on him and start poking the arm, and he experiences those pokes as if it were a real limb," Sliman Bensmaia, a University of Chicago sensory researcher at who was not involved in Nicolelis' study, told Fox News.
The pair of primates in the Duke study didn't move their real arms and hands to manipulate the objects, just the avatar's. One of the monkeys needed only four attempts before learning how to control the object, the other nine. Electrical signals from the monkeys' brains "steered" the avatar hand while their brains received simulated tactile information in the form of electrical signals from the palm of the avatar hand.
What did the monkeys get for their trouble? A sip of fruit juice.
Nicholelis predicted that thought-controlled exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs that restore the sense of touch as well as mobility could be available "in the next few years." He's working with colleagues at the Technical University in Munich, Germany, to develop a prototype, the Guardian reported.
If all goes according to plan, the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will be delivered by a young quadriplegic wearing the device.