In a major boost to millions of paralyzed or stroke-afflicted people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, researchers from the University of Minnesota have offered a breakthrough technology that will allow people to use a robotic arm that can be moved in accordance with their thoughts.

Titled "Noninvasive Electroencephalogram Based Control of a Robotic Arm for Reach and Grasp Tasks," the study has been published in Scientific Reports.

"This is the first time in the world that people can operate a robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in a complex 3D environment using only their thoughts without a brain implant," said Bin He, biomedical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota and lead researcher.

Thoughts Converted To Action

The rare feat was achieved by using electroencephalography (EEG) based brain-computer interface for recording the electrical activity of the brain.

It may be recalled that Electroencephalography tests are widely used in detecting epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. As a low-cost noninvasive method of brain monitoring, the EEG involves collection and display of data using wires, devices, electrodes, software and amplifiers.

In the present case, a high-tech EEG cap was pressed into service, which at the scalp is wired by 64 electrodes to convert the subjects' "thoughts" into action.

The trial was successful in almost eight subjects and their success rates in various tasks were recorded.

Wearing the cap, subjects are persuaded to move their hands without really moving them with an aim to control the robotic arm in a three-dimensional (3D) space.

They also had to visualize a virtual cursor on a computer screen for handling the robotic arm and grabbing objects that are stationary over a table.

Gradually, the subjects start moving the robotic arm and start grabbing objects from random locations including the lifting of things from a table just by thinking of those movements. All these movements had a high success rate close to 80 percent.

In the new research, optimum leverage of the emerging technology of Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) has been achieved as a way of bridging the brain's gap with the external world.

Brain-Computer Interface Technology

The brain-computer interface technology takes advantage of the impulses of the motor cortex at the cerebrum. Non-invasive BCI is one of the most investigated areas with multiple uses in medicine including motor restoration, and treatment of neurological disorders.

According to the study, BCI technology will benefit individuals suffering from severe neuromuscular disorders including brain stem stroke, muscular dystrophy, and spinal cord injuries. Even in such distress, despite lost muscle movement, they have retained the ability to produce motor neural signals. Such people can find a big relief in this thought-controlled robotic arm.

The next goal of the researchers will be the development of a brain-computer interface technology that can attach a robotic prosthetic limb to a person's body they want to see how the mind-led technology can work for the fully paralyzed.

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