China syncs monkey brain with a computer in a 'world first' experiment

The development demonstrates that China is allegedly at the forefront of the "white-hot technology war between China and the US," claims Chinese state-run media.
Baba Tamim
Stock photo: A brain-computer interface concept.
Stock photo: A brain-computer interface concept.


Chinese researchers claim to have successfully conducted the "world's first" brain-computer interface (BCI) experiment on a monkey, showcasing China's BCI technological breakthrough. 

This development encourages the application of brain science research and demonstrates that China is allegedly at the forefront of the "white-hot technology war between China and the US," according to Chinese state-run media reports on Friday evening.

"The success of the first animal trial is a breakthrough from zero to one, but getting the success to the clinic is a process from 1 to 100, so we still have a long way to go," said Ma Yongjie, a neurosurgeon at Beijing-based Xuanwu Hospital Capital Medical University. 

Brain-computer interface technology translates electrical signals into commands, aiding patients with motor dysfunction "to interact with their environment and improve their quality of life," added Yongjie, who was part of the team that conducted the experiment. 

The three main BCI technologies now undergoing research and development (R&D) in this developing bioscience field are interventional BCI, invasive BCI, and non-invasive BCI.

Interventional BCI 

Interventional BCI connects the brain to the computer by minimally invasive surgery, much like a heart stent, and harms people's bodies less than invasive technology while providing better EEG quality than non-invasive technology.

The Chinese technicians identified and collected electroencephalograph (EEG) signals after an interventional electroencephalograph was placed on a monkey's cerebrovascular wall using minimally invasive surgery. 

These impulses enabled active command, "allowing them to control a robotic arm with their thoughts."

However, the interventional BCI technique wouldn't be ready for clinical usage for "five years or even longer," reported the Beijing Daily quoting Yongjie. 

The experiment's successful conclusion signifies a "leap forward" in China's EEG signal technologies, moving from passively gathering to actively controlling, claimed the report.

It also heralds advancements in a number of technologies, such as the detection of interventional EEG and the collecting of EEG in blood vessels.

Invasive BCI technology typically entails craniotomy surgery to place electrodes across the cerebral cortex zone, resulting in the most accurate EEG of the three methods. 

According to industry experts, such an invasive manner will surely cause harm to the human body and could result in an inflammatory response and rejection.

The epicranium is used in non-invasive technology to collect EEG, which is safer than invasive technology but produces lower-quality EEG.

While certain "scenes from science fiction are achievable, such as the direct display of human beings' minds and driving vehicles using consciousness," Yongjie stated that it would take a long time.

Neurolink vs. China? 

In 2020, Chinese scientists successfully inserted two microelectrodes into the brain of a 72-year-old male patient whose body was paralyzed from the neck down, connecting his central nervous system to a mechanical arm. 

After the procedure, he was allegedly able to manipulate his arm via normal brain impulses. According to reports, it was China's first successful BCI procedure on an old patient. 

"The US, represented by technology company Neuralink founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has a clear edge in invasive BCI technology," a Chinese BCI device company manager told state-run Global Times

However, "China excels in non-invasive technology, as it is a forerunner in decoding and brain-computer system applications."

Meanwhile, the first interventional BCI experiment in China on nonhuman primates could mark a significant step forward in brain science and its potential applications in human healthcare.

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