Scientists have designed a prosthetic arm that can be controlled simply by thinking about the action you want to perform.
The development represents a key advancement beyond current prosthetics, which are controlled by attaching sensors to the muscles that form the wearer’s stump.
It will also be important for the emerging bioelectronics field brain-computer interfacing (BCI), which works to develop technologies enabling the brain to control electronic devices directly.
This field is still in development, and is challenging to accurately develop for, so the scientist have significant potential problems to overcome if they are to make the prosthetic a commercial reality.
The road to developing BCI-based prosthetics technology is extremely challenging, particularly the task of identifying the correct neural message from the chaos of everyday brain activity and recording it as an instruction.
This requires careful and sensitive work to determine, as Roberto Muñoz Guerrero, project leader and researcher at the Department of Electrical Engineering at the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) in Mexico, explained:
“First, it is necessary to know if there is a memory pattern to remember in the amputee’s brain in order to know how it moved and, thus, translating it to instructions for the prosthesis,” he said.
“If this phase is successful, the patient would be able to move the prosthesis by imagining different movements.”
In order to achieve this, the scientists need to define the relevant brain patterns using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which uses sensors placed on the scalp to read brainwaves.
“The first step is to recall the patterns in the EEG and define there the memory that can be electrically recorded. Then we need to evaluate how sensitive the signal is to other external shocks, such as light or blinking,” said Muñoz Guerrero.
Although designed, the arm needs to be tested and developed before it can be made available to the public, and will only be useable by amputees missing their entire arm, not those missing only part of it.
Determining the best materials for the finished prosthetic is a key decision that is still to be made. “Regarding the material with which it must be built, it has not yet been fully defined because it must weigh between two and three kilograms, which is similar to the missing arm’s weight,” explained Muñoz Guerrero.
However, developing the arm will also provide benefits for the wider field of BCI, which could lead to a surge in mind-controlled technology.
Among these is the instruction technique that the team is using. Muñoz Guerrero explained: “An additional benefit is the ability to create motion paths for the prosthesis, which is not possible with commercial products.”
Such developments are likely to initially yield benefits in the wider prosthetics and wearable health fields, however it is only a matter of time before a technology this cool finds its way into mainstream technology.
Featured and first inline image courtesy of Investigación y Desarrollo.