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Navigate a Robotic Wheelchair by Thought

Monkeys Navigate a Wheelchair With Their Thoughts

IEEE Spectrum (03/03/16) Prachi Patel

Monkeys can successfully navigate a robotic wheelchair by thought in real time, thanks to a wireless brain-machine interface (BMI) developed by Duke University researchers.

Researchers previously mainly used noninvasive electroencephalogram electrodes affixed to the subject's scalp to enable thought control of wheelchairs, but the low-frequency signals lack sufficient information to enable continuous, real-time control, while implanted electrodes linked by wire to a computer have proved impractical.

The Duke researchers decoded neural signals for whole-body movements through two-dimensional space, and translated that into the translational and rotational velocities for a wheelchair so a monkey with the BMI implant could navigate the wheelchair toward a reward. The BMI features a 512-channel wireless interface that transmits signals to a computer. The researchers recorded the monkeys' neuronal signals as they perceived the wheelchair's trajectory, and these signals were used to educate a decoder program.

The animals then attempted to control the wheelchair by thought, and the decoder converted their brain signals into motor commands for the wheelchair. "This is the first wireless brain-machine interface for whole-body locomotion," says Duke professor and project leader Miguel Nicolelis. "Even severely disabled patients who cannot move any part of their body could be placed on a wheelchair and be able to use this device for mobility."

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