Mind-Controlled Technology Extends Beyond Exoskeletons

A wearable robot controlled by brain waves will take center stage at the World Cup this week, but it’s not the only mind-controlled tech out there

The mind-controlled exoskeleton developed by Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues will allow a paralyzed teenager to make the ceremonial first kick of the 2014 World Cup. (Danilo Borges/World Cup Portal)

Today, in São Paulo, Brazil, a paralyzed teenager will don an exoskeleton controlled by his own brain waves, walk onto the pitch at Itaquera stadium and kick a soccer ball. It’ll be quite an amazing feat if all goes according to plan.

The Walk Again project is soccer-meets-neuroscience on a global stage. One of the project’s neuroscientists and a native Brazilian, Miguel Nicolelis has even compared the endeavor to putting a man on the Moon. However, critics—both scientific and social—hounded the research team as they scrambled to get the exoskeleton through sufficient clinical testing and ready for their deadline. While some scientists question whether the technology behind the exoskeleton is ready for prime time, others worry that the project is more publicity stunt than scientific demonstration.

Whatever one might think of the demonstration this week, mind-controlled technology is here to stay. In fact, there’s actually a wide range of technology you can control with your mind. Here’s an overview:


(A patient wears an EEG cap to test the Walk Again exoskeleton in Brazil. Photo: Danilo Borges/World Cup Portal.)

For decades, engineers and neuroscientists have been teaming up to build better, smarter wearable robots for paraplegics. Here’s how it works: A cap lined with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors picks up nerve signals across the brain through the skull. EEG can’t target specific areas of the brain, but a finely tuned computer algorithm can zero in on the brain signal that’s saying “walk forward” or “turn left.” These signals are translated into electronic commands that trigger movement in the exoskeleton, and so move the limbs of the person wearing it.

Currently, commercially available exoskeletons carry large battery packs and only allow the user to move slowly. Users control the robot with a joystick or by shifting their weight—similar to a Segway. Some models are lined with sensors that stimulate leg muscles, as well.

The particular exoskeleton that will be unveiled at the World Cup still appears large and clunky, but it does allow the user to control the machine using thought alone. The project is a collaboration between scientists across the globe: researchers in Europe designed and built the skeleton, Nicolelis’s lab at Duke University developed the computer algorithms to translate the user’s brain signals into movements, and a facility in São Paulo oversaw clinical testing in local patients.

This and other EEG-controlled exoskeletons serve as alternatives to using electrode implants in specific regions of the brain responsible for motor control. EEG systems and neural implants both constitute brain-computer interface technologies, and while implants could target the precise neurons that fire when a person thinks about taking a step, they require surgery.

Both interfaces could hypothetically work with an exoskeleton, and Nicolelis originally planned to use an implant in the World Cup demonstration. But, the ease and safety of EEG has made it popular among exoskeleton researchers in recent years.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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