It’s a staple of science fiction: people who can control objects with their minds.
At the University of Minnesota, a new technology is turning that fiction into reality.
In the lab of biomedical engineering professor Bin He, several young people have learned to use their thoughts to steer a flying robot around a gym, making it turn, rise, dip, and even sail through a ring.
The technology, pioneered by He, may someday allow people robbed of speech and mobility by neurodegenerative diseases to regain function by controlling artificial limbs, wheelchairs, or other devices. And it’s completely noninvasive: Brain waves (EEG) are picked up by the electrodes of an EEG cap on the scalp, not a chip implanted in the brain.
A report on the technology has been published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
“My entire career is to push for noninvasive 3-D brain-computer interfaces, or BCI,” says He, a faculty member in the College of Science and Engineering. “[Researchers elsewhere] have used a chip implanted into the brain’s motor cortex to drive movement of a cursor [across a screen] or a robotic arm. But here we have proof that a noninvasive BCI from a scalp EEG can do as well as an invasive chip.”
Mapping the brain
He’s BCI system works thanks to the geography of the motor cortex—the area of the cerebrum that governs movement. When we move, or think about a movement, neurons in the motor cortex produce tiny electric currents. Thinking about a different movement activates a new assortment of neurons.
Sorting out these assortments laid the groundwork for the BCI, says He.