U study: Mind alone can control a robotic arm

University of Minnesota scientists have made a major breakthrough that allows people to control a robotic arm using only their minds. The research has the potential to help millions of people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases.

“This is the first time in the world that people can operate a robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in a complex 3-D environment using only their thoughts, without a brain implant,” says Bin He, Ph.D., director of the U’s Institute for Engineering in Medicine and the study’s lead researcher. “Just by imagining moving their arms, they were able to move the robotic arm.”

The noninvasive technique, called electroencephalography-based brain-computer interface, records weak electrical activity of the subjects’ brains through a specialized, high-tech cap fitted with 64 electrodes that convert the “thoughts” into action by advanced signal processing and machine learning.

The brain-computer interface technology works because of the geography of the motor cortex — the area of the brain’s cerebrum that governs movement. When humans move, or think about a movement, neurons in the motor cortex produce tiny electric currents. Thinking about a different movement activates a new assortment of neurons.

He anticipates the next step of his research will be to develop the technology further by creating a brain-controlled robotic prosthetic limb attached to a person’s body and to examine how this technology could work for people who have had a stroke or are paralyzed.

The study was published in December in Scientific Reports, a Nature research journal. It was supported by several federal grants and the University’s state-funded MnDRIVE Initiative. 

Published on March 28, 2017

Photo credit: Rhonda Zurn, College of Science and Engineering

Web extra: Watch the robotic arm in action