Mind Control

A comfy new “brain cap” will soon allow users to remotely control robots with their thoughts.

The new UMD brain cap is as stylish as it is functional.

By “comfy” I mean “noninvasive” – instead of sticky electrode patches or needles, the cap uses sensors embedded in its fabric to detect electrical signals along the scalp. Just slip it on, and you can start surfing the internet – or (probably eventually) remote-control a giant battle robot – using only the power of your mind.

A study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology shows off the results of the brain cap’s latest human tests, conducted by the University of Maryland’s José ‘Pepe’ L. Contreras-Vidal and his team.

The team’s first study focused on using these electroencephalography (EEG) caps could to translate brain activity into a sort of mental mouse, which allowed users to control a computer cursor with their thoughts after a short training period. The next round of experiments studied the neural correlates of hand movements, and allowed the subjects to turn and flex a 3-D rendering of a hand just by thinking about those motions.

But this new study aims to take this technology to a whole new level:

Angular kinematics of the left and right hip, knee and ankle joints and EEG were recorded, and neural decoders were designed and optimized using cross-validation procedures. Our results … suggest that EEG signals can be used to study in real-time the cortical dynamics of walking and to develop brain-machine interfaces aimed at restoring human gait function.

In other words, subjects may soon be able to control a pair of mechanical legs just by thinking about walking. This could be a helpful shortcut for the walking-robot industry, because it would allow the patient’s natural sense of balance to make the thousands of tiny adjustments needed to stay upright on uneven terrain.

This technology has been grabbing a lot of attention, and millions of dollars worth of grants have been pouring in from partners like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and respected medical schools and research centers across the country.

The benefits for people with paralysis or limb amputations are obvious, but an even more intriguing set of results focuses on patients who’ve suffered strokes:

“By decoding the motion of a normal gait,” Contreras-Vidal says, “we can then try and teach stroke victims to think in certain ways and match their own EEG signals with the normal signals.”

In other words, the team hopes to take advantage of the brain’s natural synaptic plasticity to retrain patients’ thought patterns to produce the right movements. This could allow them to regain use of their limbs, and perhaps even walk again, without needing surgery or permanent prosthesis of any kind.

If all goes as planned, the future may look brighter than ever for patients who’ve lost the use of an area of their body. Though many of today’s therapies still depend on invasive techniques like surgery or implants, the next wave of technologies could allow intuitive systems like the UMB brain cap to reshape the brains – and even the bodies – of patients who have the will to learn a new skill.

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