Reaching out with your mind - a new age of thought-controlled robotics empowers people with disabilities

For people who are completely paralysed, a new non-invasive technology that allows them to control robots with thoughts alone provides new freedom of movement without the dangers of brain surgery.

Mind-control over matter

People who are paralysed or have neuro-degenerative conditions and are not able to move their limbs to perform everyday tasks will soon have a significantly simpler option to enable them to influence their environment using thought-controlled robotic helpers.

Ground-breaking new research by the University of Minnesota has resulted in the development of a new generation of thought-controlled interface to assist those who are paralysed to control robotic limbs with their minds – as we see in the video below.

The key to unlocking locked-in syndrome

Others experiencing a state commonly known as ‘locked-in syndrome’ and who are unable to control any part of their bodies can face huge challenges in communicating with the outside world.

Before the advent of MRI scans it was assumed that there was no brain activity whatsoever – whereas quite the opposite is the case and these individuals are fully conscious and aware of their surroundings but not able to move a muscle or make a sound.

For these individuals, the ability to control robotic limbs or a cursor on a screen would be life-changing indeed.

Research into thought controlled robotics

Research subjects at the University of Minnesota fitted with a specialised non-invasive brain cap were able to accurately move the robotic arm just by imagining moving their own arms. This intuitive and direct way of controlling the robot means that little training or effort is required and the process feels natural and obvious.

“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, a University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor and lead researcher, on the study. “Just by imagining moving their arms, they were able to move the robotic arm.”

Further work at ‘translating’ direct thoughts in this way will result in effective and straightforward methods for people who are unable to control their bodies to communicate and interact with the world around them.

“Three years ago, we weren’t sure if moving a more complex robotic arm to grasp and move objects using this brain-computer interface technology could even be achieved,” Bin He says. “We’re happily surprised that it worked with a high success rate and in a group of people.”

Saying goodbye to brain surgery

For several years, technology such as the iBrain has existed that enables people who are completely paralysed to control robotic limbs – as we see in action in the video clip below.

However the surgery required to implant the connections directly into the patient’s brain is expensive, not easily altered or upgraded, and not without risk. The time is approaching where such procedures will be superseded by safe, wearable devices used to interface with the robots or computers on-hand to help.

A future of thought-driven robots

While this sounds like a somewhat scary prospect, for people with disabilities for who using their limbs and walking unaided is currently impossible, it is a fantastic vision of a more mobile future.

We already have bionic exoskeleton suits that enable people such as Claire Lomas to walk the London marathon - as we see in this video.

For Claire Lomas, as well as for many others with even greater mobility challenges, the next generation of fully thought-controlled bionic suits or robotic helpers around the house holds the promise of ever more autonomy for people with paralysis.

Read the research

More information on this research can be found on the Nature Scientific Reports website.