Rethinking Healthcare

Control a robot with thoughts from inside a brain scanner

Posting in Science

A man inside an fMRI machine in Israel can move a little robot in France. This could allow paralyzed patients to interact through a surrogate body.

Scientists have made it possible for a man in Israel to move a robot in France just by thinking about moving.

By using an fMRI machine, which scans the brain and displays the activity in real time, paralyzed patients or people with locked-in syndrome can interact with the world using a surrogate body. New Scientist reports.

"The ultimate goal is to create a surrogate, like in Avatar, although that's a long way off yet," says Abderrahmane Kheddar at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan.

Teleoperated robots – those that can be remotely controlled by a human – have been around for decades. Kheddar and his colleagues are going a step further: “by making you feel that the thing you are embodying is part of you.”

To attempt this feat, researchers with the international Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment project used fMRI to scan the brain of university student as he imagined moving different parts of his body.

  1. Researchers from Bar-Ilan University in Israel took the student through several training stages where he attempted to direct a virtual avatar by thinking of moving his left or right hand/leg.
  2. The fMRI scanner measured blood flow to his brain, and using this, the team created an algorithm that could distinguish between each thought of movement.
  3. The commands were sent via the internet to a small robot at the Béziers Technology Institute in France.

The student could control the robot in near real time with his thoughts, while a camera on the robot's head allowed him to see from the robot's perspective. When he thought of moving his left or right hand, the robot moved 30 degrees to the left or right. Imagining moving his legs made the robot walk forward.

You can watch a cool video of how it works here (pictured).

He was even able to instruct the robot to follow a person around a room at the French lab, and he also piloted his avatar to locate a teapot placed somewhere in the room.

The next step is to refine it with electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, which uses electrodes attached to the scalp to record electrical activity in the brain – this could work as a skull cap rather than an fMRI machine that a person has to lie in. They also intend to improve the surrogate by replacing the current robot with a more humanoid HRP-4 [video], made by Kawada Industries in Japan.

The results were presented at BioRob 2012 in Rome last month.

[Via New Scientist]

Image: Montpellier 2 University via New Scientist

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure