Making Mind Reading Possible: Invention Allows Amputees To Control a Robotic Arm With Their Mind

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have developed a technology that allows amputees to control a robotic arm using their thoughts rather than their muscles. Compared to earlier technologies, this new technology is more exact and less invasive.
The majority of commercial prosthetic limbs presently on the market use a wire and harness system to control them from the shoulders or chest. Sensors in more advanced models detect slight muscle movements above the prosthesis in the patient's native limb. Both techniques, however, can be difficult for amputees to master and are occasionally ineffective.
University of Minnesota Department of Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Zhi Yang shakes hands with research participant Cameron Slavens, who tested out the researchers’ robotic arm system. With the help of industry collaborators, the researchers have developed a way to tap into a patient’s brain signals through a neural chip implanted in the arm, effectively reading the patient’s mind and opening the door for less invasive alternatives to brain surgeries

The University of Minnesota's Department of Biomedical Engineering, in collaboration with industry partners, has created a small, implanted device that links to a person's peripheral nerve in the arm. When combined with a robotic arm and an artificial intelligence computer, the device can detect and analyze brain signals, allowing upper limb amputees to move their arms just by thinking.

The study was published in the Publication of Neural Engineering, a peer-reviewed scientific journal dedicated to the multidisciplinary subject of neural engineering.

“It’s a lot more intuitive than any commercial system out there,” said Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen, a postdoctoral researcher and Ph.D. graduate in biomedical engineering from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

“With other commercial prosthetic systems, when amputees want to move a finger, they don’t actually think about moving a finger. They’re trying to activate the muscles in their arm, since that’s what the system reads. Because of that, these systems require a lot of learning and practice. For our technology, because we interpret the nerve signal directly, it knows the patient’s intention. If they want to move a finger, all they have to do is think about moving that finger.” 

Nguyen has been working on this project for almost ten years alongside Associate Professor Zhi Yang of the University of Minnesota's Department of Biomedical Engineering, and was one of the major creators of the neural chip technology. 

The research began in 2012, when Edward Keefer, a neuroscientist in the sector and the CEO of Nerves, Incorporated, approached Yang about developing a nerve implant for amputees. The couple got financing from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States government and have subsequently completed multiple successful clinical studies with genuine amputees.

To commercialize the technique, the researchers collaborated with the University of Minnesota Technology Commercialization office to develop Fasikl, a play on the term "fascicle," which refers to a bundle of nerve fibers.

“The fact that we can impact real people and one day improve the lives of human patients is really important,” Nguyen added. “It’s fun getting to develop new technologies, but if you’re just doing experiments in a lab, it doesn’t directly impact anyone. That’s why we want to be at the University of Minnesota, involving ourselves in clinical trials. For the past three or four years, I’ve had the privilege of working with several human patients. I can get really emotional when I can help them move their finger or help them do something that they didn’t think was possible before.” 

Artificial intelligence, which employs machine learning to assist understand the data from the nerve, is a key part of what makes the device perform so effectively compared to comparable technology.
“Artificial intelligence has the tremendous capability to help explain a lot of relationships,” Yang stated. “This technology allows us to record human data, nerve data, accurately. With that kind of nerve data, the AI system can fill in the gaps and determine what’s going on. That’s a really big thing, to be able to combine this new chip technology with AI. It can help answer a lot of questions we couldn’t answer before.” 
The technique is beneficial not just to amputees, but also to individuals with neurological problems and persistent pain. Yang envisions a future in which invasive brain procedures are no longer required, and brain impulses may instead be accessible via the peripheral nerve.
Furthermore, the implanted chip offers uses that are not limited to medical.
To connect to the outside AI interface and robotic arm, the system currently requires cables to pass through the skin. However, if the chip could link to any computer remotely, it would allow humans to operate their own equipment with their brains, such as a car or phone.
“Some of these things are actually happening. A lot of research is moving from what’s in the so-called ‘fantasy’ category into the scientific category,” Yang explained. “This technology was designed for amputees for sure, but if you talk about its true potential, this could be applicable to all of us.”
Previous Post Next Post