Monkey Mind

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2002
June 30th, 2007
When the staff at the prestigious journal Nature issued a press release in March about the work of a group of Brown scientists, Mijail Serruya '96 expected to hear from a handful of reporters.

What he got was a media circus and the biggest splash made within recent memory by a Brown research team. For a few days Serruya, an M.D. and Ph.D. student, and his colleagues answered a deluge of phone calls from curious journalists. The press release came a week before the publication of a Nature article authored by Serruya, neuroscience department chairman and project leader John Donoghue '71, '79 Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Nicholas Hatsopoulous, Liam Paninski '99, and doctoral student Matthew Fellows.

Why the big deal? The Nature press release described the creation of a new algorithm allowing lab monkeys with a special brain implant to move a computer cursor in real time just by thinking about the action. Surprisingly, the mind control was nearly as fast and accurate as the monkeys' hands-on control. The breakthrough could someday allow paralyzed people to control a computer cursor, or even a robotic limb.

Mind control, lab monkeys playing video games - the images were irresistible. The first phone call was from the British Broadcasting Corporation. "I'm on the way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, half asleep," Serruya recalls, "and it's 'Hello. This is the BBC.' After that it was essentially nonstop." The Brown News Service, meanwhile, fielded about ninety calls from reporters - an "unbelievable flood," says Scott Turner, the service's associate director and medical reporter.

Donoghue appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday and was quoted in such papers as the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Science reporters called about the research, but others were after a more sensational story. Radio Thailand asked Serruya about the possibility of monkeys one day connected to military contraptions. One reporter asked if the implant could help a "couch potato" too lazy to move on his own. And many pressed for when, exactly, the implant would be on the market for humans. Serruya didn't take the bait. "All I could say," he says, "was we hope it's in our lifetime."

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May / June 2002