Research sheds light on though control for prosthetics and other devices

Controlling devices with thoughts isn’t exactly mainstream science today, but in the future that may not be the case. There is lots of research in using thoughts and imagined movements to control items ranging from prosthetic limbs to the cursor on your computer screen.

There have been some thought-controlled items developed already. Memory and gaming peripheral company OCZ unveiled its $300 thought-controlled mouse peripheral in 2008 that was intended to allow gamers to control actions on screen by thinking about them. In addition, Honda has developed a robot that can be controlled by thought alone.

Medical researchers at the University of Washington have published the findings of research they conducted looking at how brain signals can be used to control keyboards, robots, and prosthetic devices. The study connected participants to a computer to see how well the brain can adapt to controlling devices with thought. The team found that not only can the brain control a computer cursor with thought, but the process may be beneficial for the brain as well.

Lead paper author Kai Miller said, "Bodybuilders get muscles that are larger than normal by lifting weights. We get brain activity that's larger than normal by interacting with brain-computer interfaces. By using these interfaces, patients create super-active populations of brain cells."

The study connected patients waiting to undergo surgery for epilepsy to a computer with electrodes and showed that while watching a cursor on a computer screen respond to though the signals in the brain become stronger than those generated in daily life. The researchers say that the finding shows promise to helping to rehab people after a stroke or other neurological damage.

The study included eight patients that were at two hospitals in Seattle. Each patient was connected to a computer by electrodes that were attached to the surface of their brains in the days leading up to surgery for epilepsy.

Miller said, "A lot of the studies in this field are in non-human primates. But how do you ask an animal to imagine doing something? We don't even know that they can."

Once the participants were connected to the computer the researchers recorded brain patterns when the subject clinched and unclenched a fist, stuck out their tongue, shrugged their shoulder, and said the word "move". After those readings were recorded, the team recorded brain patterns when the participants imagined performing the same actions. The patterns recorded were similar to those when the action was actually performed, but were much weaker.

The team finally recorded signals as the patients imagined performing the actions while watching a cursor on screen that was moved by their brain signals. The team found that after less than 10 minutes of practice, the brain signals from imagined movement were significantly stronger than the ones created by actually doing the movements.

"People have been looking at imagined movements as a way to control computers for a long time. This study provides a glimpse of the underlying neural machinery," said co-author Rajesh Rao, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering who is Miller's neuroscience dissertation advisor.

Participants reported that after less than 10 minutes of training they could control the cursor by simply thinking about moving it rather than imagining moving a body part. The findings may one day lead to better control of computers for the disabled and prosthetic limbs among other things.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il
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