University of Minnesota: UMN technology allows amputees to control a robotic arm with their mind

University of Minnesota Twin Cities researchers have developed a more accurate, less invasive technology that allows amputees to move a robotic arm using their brain signals instead of their muscles.

Researchers in the University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, with the help of industry collaborators, have created a small, implantable device that attaches to the peripheral nerve in a person’s arm. When combined with an artificial intelligence computer and a robotic arm, the device can read and interpret brain signals, allowing upper limb amputees to control the arm using only their thoughts.

The researchers’ most recent paper is published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, a peer-reviewed scientific journal for the interdisciplinary field of neural engineering.

“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.”

A big part of what makes the system work so well compared to similar technologies is the incorporation of artificial intelligence, which uses machine learning to help interpret the signals from the nerve.

“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.”

The technology has benefits not only for amputees but for other patients who suffer from neurological disorders and chronic pain. Yang sees a future where invasive brain surgeries will no longer be needed and brain signals can be accessed through the peripheral nerve instead.

Plus, the implantable chip has applications that go beyond medicine.

Right now, the system requires wires that come through the skin to connect to the exterior AI interface and robotic arm. But, if the chip could connect remotely to any computer, it would give humans the ability to control their personal devices—a car or phone, for example—with 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.”

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