Imagine having the ability to control things with your mind. According to findings from the University of Minnesota, it is possible.
Researchers have discovered a major breakthrough in technology, which allows a robotic arm to be controlled by the mind through something called electroencephalography (EEG).
This is a non-invasive technique, which requires the participant to wear a specially-created fitted cap. This cap has 64 electrodes that detect neurological functions and pass them through a computer. Essentially, it converts thoughts into actions. This translates into movement on a computer screen as depicted by the brain, or in this case, the movement of a robotic arm. This is commonly referred to as brain-computer interface, or BCI, technology.
Eight people participated in this study, all without prior health complications. These healthy individuals went through a few different phases of study to bring them to the point of finally attempting to move the robotic arm using only brain signals.
While wearing the cap, participants had to first learn how to think about moving their arms without actually moving them. They then were able to control a cursor on a screen, eventually graduating to controlling the movements of a robotic arm. All of the subjects in the study were able to reach out and operate the robotic arm much as they would their own arm. Along the course of the study, participants were able to maintain their ability to control the arm for 2-3 months.
The EEG cap operates by placing sensors on specific places on the head, particularly where the motor cortex is located. The motor cortex is the part of the brain responsible for all movement, and each neuron emits a small electrical charge whenever it is activated.
Of course, there are many signals being produced by the brain at all times. Dr. Bin He, the lead scientist in the study, developed a system of processing the electrical currents and isolating the ones that governed movements of the robotic arm.
When asked to reach out and grab an object from a shelf using the robotic arm, participants executed the movements with an 80 percent success rate. When asked to move the object and place it on another shelf, they saw a 70 percent success rate. These results show much promise for further research.
For anyone suffering from paralysis, stroke, or any other condition which inhibits limb movement, this development in technology provides a very desirable alternative. Other options include brain implants, which always have the possibility of post-surgery side-effects.
Dr. He hopes to continue this research, creating a method which enables people to use EEG technology to control a robotic limb attached to their body. He could also see the technology used by people who suffer from neurodegenerative disorders.