A mind-controlled robot arm doesn’t have to mean brain implants

This cutting-edge research is being spearheaded by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. Down the line, this work might lead to technology that could make day-to-day life easier for people who suffer from paralysis or who live with movement disorders.

This project is significant because BCIs that operate robotic devices like this typically use signals from brain implants. Lead researcher Bin He, department head of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told Engadget this is the first time a noninvasive BCI has successfully directed a robotic arm to track a cursor in a smooth, continuous movement.

He said past efforts to control a robotic arm with a BCI were all about “discrete movements,” such as reaching out to an object, grasping it and jerkily guiding it to another position. The fact that this arm could move in relatively fluid motions has big implications.

The ultimate goal is to design a fully mind-controlled prosthetic limb that operates in continuous movement for “naturalistic tasks” like opening doors or grabbing food on a hard-to-reach kitchen shelf, he added.

The fact that this BCI is noninvasive is key. The implants that have been the norm need a significant amount of surgical expertise to connect to the human brain and can be both costly and highly dangerous. As a result, these procedures have been performed in a very small number of cases. This new research shows that BCIs that transmit brain signals remotely without implants can be as strong and as effective as those that require invasive procedures.

Paul Marasco, associate staff at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, told Engadget that this kind of technology could be life-changing for people who primarily use wheelchairs to move from place to place.

“A noninvasive way to control prosthetic limbs from brain signals without the need for implanted communication would be very helpful,” said Marasco, who is not affiliated with this research. “People do not typically want to risk a brain implant to control a prosthetic.”

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