Written by: M
The human body should not be limited by its physicality. We should not think that losing a limb is the end, as even now mind and machine can amalgamate, and be used to improve our daily lives. Prosthetic limbs are now being coupled with brain-computer interfaces (BCI). What that means is, not only can we get artificial limbs to replace lost body parts. It also means that we can also control it “consciously”. These brain-computer interfaces are completely controlled by the power of thought. The BCI receives signals in brain activity, and can convert those signals into commands from which the BCI can operate.
Scientists at the University of Houston in Texas are currently developing prosthetic legs that can be controlled by a BCI. An electrical and computer engineering expert Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal and his team are developing a BCI that will give the users the ability to control prosthetic legs using just the power of thought. The researchers are currently testing their system on a robotic exoskeleton developed by New-Zealand based Rex Bionics.
The exoskeleton, known as REX, is the world’s first self-supporting, independently controlled exoskeleton designed to help mobility impaired users walk. The device is independent, and does not need crutches or walking frames and can provide its own stability. It implies that hands are free to move around. The exoskeleton is fitted with four double-tethered straps, an abdominal support and upper harness so it is safe and secure. It is made from hospital standard materials. Such as: pressure-relieving padding, designed for the ultimate comfort.
The current model of REX is controlled by a waist-high joystick control, which allows them to sit, stand, and turn. But the application of Contreras-Vidal’s BCI system could make a huge contribution to the REX exoskeleton. In the coming years, this technology may be able to help people who are completely paralyzed on the waist down to use this robotic exoskeleton autonomously.
In other news, a study at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV), are implicating the BCI system to a prosthetic arm. The prosthetic arm, like Contreras-Vidal’s BCI adaptation, can be controlled by thought patterns. The user can control this arm by just simply thinking about it. In order for this to work, the researchers have to find out if there is a specific memory pattern in the user’s brain that remembers the movement. If so, the electrical signals can be used to manipulate a prosthetic arm.
According to Muñoz Guerrero, the scientist leading the research, one of the obstacles in this project stems from the fact that the brain registers a broad range of activities throughout the body, and a single movement pattern must be drawn from this complex registry. The first stage is to record the brain’s patterns of the amputee’s memory of how to move the arm using an EEG. The sensitivity of these signals to external stimuli, such as blinking or light, then has to be measured.
In order for the prosthetic to work, the device will need both electronic and mechanical components to activate it, as well as a system that can translate signals from the brain into actual movement. The team is currently finalizing the material, which will be used to develop the prosthetic arm. This is crucial as it must be the same weight as a real arm; between 2-3 kilograms.
This research marks breaking ground in the field of neuroprosthetics because it permits direct communication between the brain and prosthetic device connected to it. In a few decades time, imagine where neuroprosthetics can lead us. It’s rather extreme, but perhaps in the future, we can function with only our brains implanted into an entire BCI robot?