Mind over body: new hope for quadriplegics

Mar 10, 2008

Around 2.5 million people worldwide are wheelchair bound because of spinal injuries. Half of them are quadriplegic, paralysed from the neck down. European researchers are now offering them new hope thanks to groundbreaking technology that uses brain signals alone to control computers, artificial limbs and even wheelchairs.

People left paralysed by spinal injuries or suffering from neurodegenerative diseases could regain a degree of independence thanks to a new type of non-intrusive brain-computer interface, or BCI, developed by the MAIA project.

Using electrical signals emitted by the brain and picked up by electrodes attached to the user’s scalp, the system allows people to operate devices and perform tasks that previously they could only dream of. So far, the team, led by the IDIAP Research Institute in Switzerland, has carried out a series of successful trials in which users have been able to manoeuvre a wheelchair around obstacles and people using brainpower alone.

“We have demonstrated that it is possible for someone to control a complex mechanical device with their minds, and this opens up all sorts of possibilities,” says MAIA coordinator José del R. Millán.

Though BCIs, for people with impaired movement and for other uses, have been under development for many years, they have had varying degrees of success, largely because of the difficulties of turning brain signals into accurate mechanical movement. What sets the EU-funded MAIA system apart is that it does not rely on the human brain alone to do all the work, instead incorporating artificial intelligence into the device being used.

Intelligence meets artificial intelligence

A person using the MAIA BCI to control a wheelchair, for example, only has to think about going straight ahead or turning left and the chair follows their command. However, they do not have to worry about colliding with obstacles – even moving ones such as people – because the wheelchair itself monitors and reacts to its environment.

“A user can tell the chair to go straight ahead, but it will not just randomly roll in that direction if there is a wall or a flight of stairs in the way,” Millán notes. “What we have done is combine the intelligence of the person with the artificial intelligence of the device.”

In a sense, the artificial intelligence embedded in the chair acts much like a human’s subconscious. People, for example, do not consciously send commands to every muscle in each leg in order to walk and do not think where to step to avoid an obstacle – they do it subconsciously. Similarly, a wheelchair-bound user of the MAIA BCI simply has to send the signal to go in a certain direction and the chair figures out how to get there.

But the user always stays in control!

Keeping the user in control

“We wanted to see how much of the movement was down to the user’s brain signals and how much was due to the intelligence of the chair. It turned out that the wheelchair intervened between 10 and 40 percent of the time depending on the user and the environment.

“In one demonstration in which someone was manoeuvring the chair for six hours, the computer intelligence kicked in more frequently later on as the person became increasingly tired and made more mistakes,” Millán says.

Importantly, the chair can recognise from the user’s brain signals if it has made a mistake, and, through tactile devices similar to the vibrators used in mobile phones, it can send feedback to users about the direction they are going that enhances their sense of awareness beyond the visual.

Millán notes that the same technology could be applied to artificial limbs to allow quadriplegics to pick up objects or unlock a door. By using the BCI to interact with computer systems, meanwhile, they could control the lighting in their homes, surf the internet, or change the channels on the TV. Those simpler brain-computer interactions, which have the potential to become the basis for commercial systems sooner, will be the focus of a follow-up EU project called TOBI that is due to begin in September and which will also be led by Millán.

“For a wheelchair, such as the one developed in MAIA, to reach the market would take extensive trials to prove that the technology is robust enough. We can’t have it breaking down when someone is in the middle of the street,” Millán notes.

Carrying out such validation trials remains a goal of the project partners who are actively seeking further funding and investment to continue their work.

Source: ICT Results

Explore further: Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Android gains in US, basic phones almost extinct

12 hours ago

The Google Android platform grabbed the majority of mobile phones in the US market in early 2014, as consumers all but abandoned non-smartphone handsets, a survey showed Friday.

SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

12 hours ago

The SpaceX company returned to orbit Friday, launching fresh supplies to the International Space Station after more than a month's delay and setting the stage for urgent spacewalking repairs.

Recommended for you

Lifting the brakes on fuel efficiency

Apr 18, 2014

The work of a research leader at Michigan Technological University is attracting attention from Michigan's Governor as well as automotive companies around the world. Xiaodi "Scott" Huang of Michigan Tech's ...

Large streams of data warn cars, banks and oil drillers

Apr 16, 2014

Better warning systems that alert motorists to a collision, make banks aware of the risk of losses on bad customers, and tell oil companies about potential problems with new drilling. This is the aim of AMIDST, the EU project ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

(Phys.org) —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

Treating depression in Parkinson's patients

A group of scientists from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging has found interesting new information in a study on depression and neuropsychological function in Parkinson's ...