CogniFit's Science blog: May The Force Be With You

May The Force Be With You

Let me assume something upfront: yes, I am a huge fan of the Star Wars double trilogy. Although one can spot some inconsistencies between the first and the second trilogy, overall it’s an amazing and very original story.

What is Star Wars doing in a brain related article? Some of the very recent news around brain research take us to think of the old Jedi power of moving objects with their minds and the brain power.

A new non-invasive brain computer interface has been created in the University of Maryland, by Professor José Contreras and his team. This “brain cap” uses a sensor-lined cap, picking up brain waves able to control such things as computers, motorized wheelchairs, or digital avatars.

Based on this, a study has been recently published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. The study was based on a successful use of electroencephalography (EEG) brain signals to rebuild complex 3-D movements of the ankle, knee and hip joints.

What was amazing about this seems science fiction turned to life. Professor Contrera’s team has proven that with this technology, the subjects exposed to this test were able to move a cursor on a computer screen, only by thinking about it. Just like Yoda, I would say.

This result was achieved by tapping into the user’s neural network, able to read electrical activity inside the brain. The research matched the specific brain activity recorded in real time with the lower-limb movements, by tracking the neural activity of people on a treadmill. With the gathered data, a new prosthetic device, the “anklebot” can be created to assist paralyzed people.

This technology is the first non-invasive one to prove it can decode results comparable to the achieved with implanted electrodes, and therefore constitutes a real breakthrough for many people.

On a first stage, these learnings can be used to provide intuitive control over contact tasks, and it can also be very interesting for strengthening the control of the mind over what the body is performing, namely in the case of prosthetic arms, so that the movements can mimic the ones intended. This can prove to change the life of victims of paralysis, injury or stroke.

There are however other uses for this experiment. One could be on virtual reality, such as mind games controlled by the player’s thoughts, which is not only useful for entertainment purposes, but also for people who aren’t able to move. On a broader scope, this development may lead to a revolution on all types of brain-controlled prosthetics, robotic arms.

There is still a lot to learn in this area, but it seems clear that the power of the mind is greater than previously assumed. As human beings, we all have the Force around us, we just need to unhide it and use it to our benefit.