This technology allows amputees to move robotic arms using their mind

[Image courtesy of the Neuroelectronics Lab at the University of Minnesota]

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have developed a robotic arm system that allows amputees to move their arm using brain signals.

The small, implantable device attaches to the peripheral nerve in a person’s arm, according to the research team in the university’s department of biomedical engineering. When combined with an artificial intelligence computer and a robotic arm, the device is able to read and interpret brain signals to allow upper limb amputees to control their arms using thoughts.

“It’s a lot more intuitive than any commercial system out there,” said Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen, a postdoctoral researcher and University of Minnesota college of science and engineering alumnus. “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. Our technology knows the patient’s intention. If they want to move a finger, all they have to do is think about moving that finger.”

The University of Minnesota system appears to be an improvement compared to previous brain-controlled prosthetics that required chips implanted inside the brain and connected to the outside via a port in the head.

The U of M system uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to help interpret the signals from the nerve to the brain, which the researchers suggest could make the system work well compared to similar technologies.

“Artificial intelligence has the tremendous capability to help explain a lot of relationships,” said Zhi Yang, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota. “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.”

Yang also suggests that the technology could be used for other patients who have neurological disorders and chronic pain. The researchers hope there will be a future in medicine where invasive brain surgeries will no longer be needed and brain signals can be assessed through a peripheral nerve instead.

While the University of Minnesota-developed system currently requires wires that come through the skin to connect to the exterior AI interface and robotic arm, the researchers envision a chip that could connect remotely to a computer, which could enable people to control more personal devices like a phone or car using their minds.

“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 said. “This technology was designed for amputees for sure, but if you talk about its true potential, this could be applicable to all of us.”