The 2014 world cup kick-off was made unforgettable with the help of Juliano Pinto,the 29 year old paraplegic man who initiated this kick with the help of a robotic suit controlled by Pinto’s brain signals via an EEG cap on his skull.

There probably wasn’t a single spectator in the stands who would didn’t have some sense of awe and wonder at the capacity of this technology. Certainly, most everyone would have sympathized with Pinto’s condition, and few would ever object to the technological developments that could help a paralyzed young man walk again. Indeed, what could be more agreeable.

The procedures and research that lead to the development of such dextrous exoskeleton control, however, is questionable in the eyes of some.

Because apes share similar brain features and are capable of calculated, volitional movement, their grey matter has served as a fruitful petri dish for the development of brain-machine interface technology. In many of the experimental studies to understand the frontiers of brain-machine interface, apes are implanted with invasive electrodes placed into the brain – generally into the motor cortex area correlated to hand and arm movement.

Labs from all over the world involved in the “Walk About Project” shared the noble goal of rehabilitating folks like Juliano with cutting-edge neuroscience, but it takes a lot of monkey-to-computer connections to see the kind of significant progress that this team has realized in the last 15 years.

Below is a monkey who’s motor cortex is hooked up to a multi-jointed robotic arm, here we seem him grasp for marshmallows with incredible dexterity through many rounds of training the machine with him thought:

Here, we see a display of a “virtual monkey arm”, suspended in a kind of virtual reality, also moved and controlled by the thoughts of the ape alone:

Of course, the videos we see are of scientific breakthroughs, not mishaps. Few researchers (the kinds of researchers who like to keep their jobs) would speak openly about any kind of gruesome complication with hooking up brains to machines, but we can imagine in those admittedly rare cases, the footage is much less likely to make it’s way onto YouTube.

With a few exceptions, most of the animal rights response to the work of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis and the folks involved in the “Walk Again Project” have remained relegated to the comments sections of articles all over the web. From WIRED to SingularityHub, the a small (and sometimes large) buzz of discontent bubbles up under a good deal of the neuroscience research articles – though this party doesn’t seem to be doing well getting their voice heard in the form of their own articles and opinion pieces.

The noble aims of this research seems relatively difficult to question, and anyone who saw the enthusiasm and joy on the face of Pinto after his famed kick-off could probably feel that in a heartbeat. I myself would assume that the apes themselves – in the vast majority of circumstances – are treated well, and generally not pained too greatly by their procedures.

I don’t consider myself on either side of the fence, but I believe that the questions that we will grapple with more and more in the coming decades of neuroscience are not going to get any less important. To consider a few:

  • Must we have a necessary human pain or ill condition to ameliorate (like paralysis or other neurological conditions) in order to justify primate experiments, or will such research be permissible for “enhancement” technologies as well?
  • How many such primates should be unwillingly dedicated to such projects, and for what span of time?
  • How is the quality of life of these animals measured, and how can we maintain the best possible lives for animals who undergo this kind of (literally) mind-altering experimentation?
  • What kinds of suffering / psychological perturbation is permissible when experimenting on rats, versus rabbits, versus apes, and how does the sentient capacity and cognitive depth of a creature impact the rules around their treatment?

What are your opinions about primate research in neuroscience, and the limits / ethical considerations involved?