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Controlling robot arm with the mind

Research test subjects at the University of Minnesota who were fitted with a specialized noninvasive brain cap were able to move a robotic arm just by imagining moving their own arms.


Research test subjects at the University of Minnesota who were fitted with a specialized noninvasive brain cap were able to move a robotic arm just by imagining moving their own arms.

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Researchers at the University of Minnesota created a noninvasive technique, called electroencephalography (EEG) based brain-computer interface, 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 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."

The technique works by recording weak electrical activity of a subject's brain through a specialized, high-tech EEG cap fitted with 64 electrodes and converts their "thoughts" into action by advanced signal processing and machine learning.

For the study, eight healthy test subjects, wearing the EEG cap, gradually learned to imagine moving their own arms without actually moving them to control a robotic arm in 3-D space. First they learned to control a virtual cursor on a computer screen and then later learned to control a robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in fixed locations on a table. Eventually, they were able to move the robotic arm to reach and grasp objects in random locations on a table and move objects from the table to a three-layer shelf by just thinking about these movements.

The success rate of the eight test subjects who took part was above 80 percent when it came to controlling the robotic arm to pick up objects in fixed locations. The success rate was above 70 percent when it came to moving objects from a table onto a shelf.

"This is exciting as all subjects accomplished the tasks using a completely noninvasive technique. We see a big potential for this research to help people who are paralyzed or have neurodegenerative diseases to become more independent without a need for surgical implants," He said..

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

To learn more about this research, see the Univ. of Minnesota news story University of Minnesota research shows that people can control a robotic arm with only their minds. (Date image taken: December 2016; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: May 31, 2017)

Credit: University of Minnesota

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