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)

Bionic Limbs

(The DEKA Arm is capable of handling objects as delicate as grapes and eggs as well as manipulating power tools, such as a hand drill. Photo: DARPA)

In 1999, Nicolelis and some colleagues successfully constructed a working bionic arm for rats. Rats controlled the arm using implanted electrodes in the area of their brain responsible for voluntary muscle movements.

Since then, bionic limbs have come a long way. Implants are more invasive than EEG, but they can target specific neural regions (rather than scanning the whole brain). In research trials, bionic arms have allowed paraplegics to grasp and carry objects like chocolate or a cup of coffee. These arms are large, cumbersome, and primarily aimed at those with a high degree of paralysis.

For amputees, myoelectric prosthetics can translate neural signals from muscles in the remaining part of the limb into movement in the arm. Electromyogram sensors pick up on muscle movement in the upper limb and tell the prosthetic how to move. The FDA approved its first such mind-controlled prosthetic limb, the DEKA arm, earlier this year and similar devices are in clinical testing.

Other mind-controlled prosthetics use special electrodes inserted into two arm nerves (the ulnar and median) to give the wearer a basic sense of touch. Targeted muscle re-innervation, a surgical procedure that rewires some of the neural circuitry at the amputation site, can also improve an individual’s control and manipulation of a bionic prosthetic. 

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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