Big in Japan: Monkey brains in North Carolina make a robot walk in Japan

Here at Big in Japan, we’re used to reporting all sorts of weird, wacky and wonderful stories from the Land of the Rising Sun.

With that said, today’s posting probably has one of the strangest titles ever to grace the pages at Gadling.

Just in case you’re still scratching your head as to what the title of today’s post means, let me clarify that I couldn’t be any clearer.

Last week, monkey brains in North Carolina actually made a robot walk in Japan.


Since you’re probably confused, doubting, shocked or a combination of all three, allow me to explain what is probably one of the coolest scientific experiments I’ve ever heard about.

According to a press release by the Duke University Medical Center, researchers used a monkey’s brain activity to control the walking patterns of a robot in Japan.

In what is being touted as a major scientific breakthrough, the research team is hoping that their latest work will be used to develop prototypes of robotic leg braces for human use.

Are you awestruck yet? If so, keep reading as this story gets a whole lot cooler!

So, how exactly were the thoughts of a monkey able to make a robot walk? Good question!

(If you’re squeamish or sensitive to animal research, I would recommend that you stop reading at this point.)

In true mad scientist form, a so-called ‘brain-machine interface’ was grafted into the brain cells of two rhesus monkeys.

For the record, a brain machine interface is any system that allows people or animals to use their brain activity to control an external device.

Next, in what must have been an amusing spectacle to watch, the monkeys were places on treadmills and hooked up to sensors in order to determine the relationship between leg movement and brain activity.

Here is where things start to get really cool:

At the same time, these brain signals were collected, fed into the computer and transmitted over a high-speed Internet link to Japan.

The recipient of this information was a robot known as CB (Computational Brain), which has the same range of motion as a human.

As the monkey’s brain signals were streamed into the robot’s actuators, CB walked at exactly the same pace as the monkey.

In fact, computers demonstrated that the monkey’s neurons fired each time it took a step and each time the robot took a step.

According to Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the Anne W. Deane Professor of Neuroscience at Duke, “They can walk in complete synchronization. The most stunning finding is that when we stopped the treadmill and the monkey ceased to move its legs, it was able to sustain the locomotion of the robot for a few minutes — just by thinking — using only the visual feedback of the robot in Japan.”


Although the initial aim of the research is to create a fully-functional robotic leg brace, the applications for thought-driven motion are infinite.

In other words, for all of you Star Wars fans out there, it looks like we may be just a few short years away from being able to use to Force!

** The monkey in the photo to the right is a female howler, who was spotted by my mother while traveling in Costa Rica. Mom, if you’re reading this, hope you enjoyed the trip! **