Commanding R2D2 - With Your Mind

Stroke victims could use brain computer interface to control robotic assistive devices

(RxWiki News) It is tragic when a person loses their ability to control their own body. There is hope, though, that a new technology may allow the disabled to control robots with only their mind.

A device called BrainGate, a brain-computer interface (BCI) which uses brain activity to control a computer controlled robotic arm, is being tested in clinical trials.

Victims of stroke or those who are otherwise disabled may be able to use the devices even years after the initial paralysis.

"New assistive devices are regularly becoming available."

"Years after the onset of paralysis, we found that it was still possible to record brain signals that carry multi-dimensional information about movement and that those signals could be used to move an external device," said Leigh Hochberg, MD, PhD, associate professor of engineering at Brown University and a critical care neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The trials consisted of a 58-year-old woman and 66-year-old man both paralyzed from stroke in 1996 and 2006, respectively. Neither can speak or use their limbs.

Both have a small silicon sensor installed in their motor cortex, the part of the brain which directs movement. The sensor records brain activity and sends the information to a computer for processing.

The participants were able to complete a task which involved interacting with foam targets placed on a table at various heights and distances.

The movement is relatively slow, however. A reach and grab motion can take up to ten seconds to complete.

Also, on average, they were only able to complete the task 54 percent of the time.

The system is years away from being widely available, according to researchers. The technology needs to improve in speed and accuracy. Additionally, the current equipment is cumbersome and requires a 30 minute calibration before use.

In the future, the researchers hope to have a wireless system that is easier to manage and an automatic calibration so that users can use the device for years at a time.

"This is another big jump forward to control the movements of a robotic arm in three-dimensional space. We're getting closer to restoring some level of everyday function to people with limb paralysis," said John Donoghue, PhD, who leads the development of BrainGate technology and is the director of the Institute for Brain Science at Brown University.

The trials was published in the May 2012 edition of the journal Nature and was funded by a Javits Neuroscience Investigator award, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Review Date: 
June 12, 2012