Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Japanese scientists work to enable disabled people to move machines with their brain waves

From The Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan:

Severely disabled people may someday be able to manipulate machines with their brain waves, making them respond the way they want, if a group of scientists from Osaka University Hospital and elsewhere has its way.

Starting next fiscal year, the team is set to conduct clinical research aimed at mechanically producing the actions directed by disabled people's brain waves. If successful, the research would make it possible, among other things, for people who cannot use their arms and legs to display their thoughts on the screen of a personal computer.

It would also enable physically handicapped persons to manipulate robots.

Members of Osaka University Hospital's neurosurgery department and the University of Tokyo, among others, plan to apply brain-machine interface (BMI) technology to their research.

The group intends to apply for approval from the university hospital's ethics committee this spring for their research on patients who are suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle weakness and atrophy throughout the body. They plan to eventually expand their research to patients with serious disabilities resulting from strokes and other ailments.

The research will be led by Prof. Toshiki Yoshimine and Masayuki Hirata, a specially appointed associate professor, at the university hospital. It will be the first time in Japan that BMI technology will used to help severely disabled people.

Currently, the primary communication method used by ALS patients is focusing their eyes on boards containing letters of the alphabet.

The team's research will attach a sheet of about 100 electrodes measuring about 1 millimeter in diameter to the surface of the motor area of the brain of a patient who has developed severe ALS. The patient's brain waves will be measured by the electrodes and a specialist will analyze the waves' movement.

When conveying one's intentions by using a personal computer with a letter board on its screen, for example, sentences can be created quickly if the person visualizes the movement of a cursor in their brain, the researchers said.

They also plan to experiment with connecting the brain waves to a robot so the robot changes its body position and otherwise moves as the person wishes.

In the future, they plan to utilize the technology to help rehabilitate stroke patients. Ideally, patients who have difficulty recovering motor function after a stroke would wear a robot suit that enables them to move as they desire.

According to Yoshimine, the team has completed the basic stages of the research.

"By placing an electrode sheet directly on the brain, we can get very precise information. We'd like to reproduce complicated movements through robots and other means," he said.