Controlling a robot with your mind
In the study, subjects had to lie still in a powerful, 7T MRI scanner, while the computer screen showed them what a toy robot's camera could ‘see'. The subjects did not move, but had to keep their eyes focused on a single point. As the MRI scanner measured the brain activity, the computer learnt when the subjects were thinking left, right or forwards.
In this way, Ramsey and other UMC Utrecht colleagues have enabled four subjects to control a robot. The robot successfully completed a course of about nine meters with four stops along the way, while the ‘driver' was lying elsewhere in an MRI scanner.
"All four study subjects were able to control the robot very quickly", explains Ramsey. "They all felt in control of the robot. This means that this type of brain-computer interface is very easy to master. Training is barely needed."
Ramsey is working on a brain-computer interface that will allow paralyzed people to control a computer. To achieve this, he hopes to implant electrodes into these patients' brains to measure brain activity. This is necessary to ensure a good signal, but it also involves major surgery. Ramsey believes that controlling the robot through the MRI scanner will be a first step for these patients. If the paralyzed people manage to control the robot, the investigators and doctors may then decide to implant electrodes in their brains. Ramsey hopes to be able to implant electrodes for the first time in paralyzed patients for a simpler system this fall. Controlling a robot using electrodes is expected to be possible in a few years.
Controlling the robot is part of Patrik Andersson's PhD research. He was awarded his PhD on 4 July at the UMC Utrecht. His supervisors are Prof. Nick Ramsey, Prof. Max Viergever and Dr Josien Pluim.