Using electrodes placed on the surface of the skull, researchers have succeeded in moving a robotic arm and grabbing objects with the simple force of the mind.
Moving objects with the power of your mind is no longer science fiction. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have made a major breakthrough that could allow millions of paralyzed people to control a robotic arm by thought. They present their discovery this Wednesday in Scientific Reports.
This is the first time in the world that people have been able to operate a robotic arm and grasp objects with that arm using only their minds,” said Bin He, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and the person responsible for the work. By just imagining that they were moving their arm, they were able to move the robotic arm.
A feat achieved without the need to implant electrodes in the volunteers’ brains. The scientists developed a brain-machine interface based on the use of an electroencephalogram (EEG), a device that records brain activity using 64 electrodes placed on the skull. The engineers explain that when we imagine moving the armor when we actually move it, the neurons in the motor cortex activate and produce an electrical signal. And it is this electrical activity that is captured by the EEG. These “thoughts” are then converted into actions using a computer algorithm.
To develop this interface, 8 able-bodied volunteers took part in the experiment. With a helmet with electrodes placed on the head, these participants learned to handle the robotic arm. Their learning began with the control of a cursor on a screen. They had to successfully place a colored dot in a square represented on a screen (see video below). They then learned how to control the robotic arm and grab an object on a table, before moving it on a small 3-level shelf.
The technology was tested on 68 able-bodied human subjects, in about 10 sessions per patient. The researchers asked the volunteers to wear a helmet equipped with brainwave sensors and then direct the robotic arm to point at a moving target on a screen. The participants were all able to track the target continuously in real time. The use of machine learning increased the IND’s capabilities for the most basic tasks by 60%, and improved continuous tracking of a target by more than 500%.
Technology that is accessible to everyone
Direct Neural Interfaces have paved the way for new techniques to improve the lives of people with neurological disorders or physical disabilities. The technology can provide greater independence to patients with amputations, spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis. These technologies allow for “mind control” of external devices such as prosthetics but also include computers.
Exoskeletons, artificial retinas, thought-controlled prostheses… These technological innovations are no longer the stuff of science fiction but inspire concrete scientific experiments. Since 1998, when the first bionic hand was implanted in a patient, research has focused on the design of mind-controlled artificial limbs. The brain implant already allows the use of a robotic prosthesis with fluidity. But the operation has many disadvantages, in addition to being reserved for a few rare clinical cases. At the price of a heavy, expensive and especially experimental intervention on the brain, the patient can hope to direct an artificial arm.