Mind over matter: EU researchers use brainpower to get moving

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Grabbing a glass or typing an email: these are some everyday gestures that are not possible for people with serious physical impairments – even though they have the will and the brainpower to do so. EU-funded projects such as TOBI (Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction) are working on technologies that could greatly improve the quality of life of people such as 20-year-old Francesco or 53-year-old Jean-Luc. Brain-Computer Interaction has allowed them to regain control of paralysed limbs, surf the web and take 'virtual' walks with their thought.

"Participating in this project allowed me to see that I can still be useful to society", wrote 53-year-old Jean-Luc Geiser, who suffered a stroke which left him completely paralysed and unable to speak. Thanks to TOBI, Jean-Luc was able to communicate by typing email messages via a computer cursor controlled through his brain waves. 20-year-old Francesco Lollini was also happy to take part in the project: "I really like this kind of tests as I also love sci-fi films", he said.

In contrast to similar experiments which usually involved able-bodied patients or invasive brain implants, TOBI broke new ground by developing non-invasive prototypes directly tested by and with potential users.

"There are many people suffering from different levels of physical disability who cannot control their body but whose cognitive level is sufficiently high," said project coordinator José del R. Millán, a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Brain power in practice

TOBI involved at least three kinds of brain-to-computer dialogue which meant paralysed patients could communicate and even move.

The first involved sending brain signals to a computer cursor via electrodes attached to a cap worn on the head. Simply by thinking about what they wanted to type, patients could remotely control the computer cursor to surf the web and write emails and texts.

In the second experiment, patients sent brain signals to control a small robot with video, audio and obstacle-detection sensors. They could then use the robot to take a ‘virtual’ walk around the hospital or even hook up with loved ones in different places.

Other patients were able to regain control of their paralysed limbs just by thinking about moving them. This was done using computer software designed to detect a patient’s intention to perform a certain movement. In some cases, intensive training and rehabilitation helped them to keep that control even after the electronics were removed.

The users became part of the research team. "We listened to the feedback of all the patients to correct design mistakes and made any changes right away. We also took into consideration the feedback of professional end users who worked with the patients in hospital," said Professor Millán.

A ray of hope

The project ended last year and the different prototypes are still being fine-tuned. Some equipment is available for patients at clinics and hospitals which are TOBI partners.

"Altogether, this is proof of the degree of robustness and possibilities of today’s brain-computer interaction (BCI) technology," said Professor Millán.

Projects such as TOBI represent a real hope for disabled people. "This should be their future, this should give them the chance to feel fulfilled," explained Claudia Menarini, Francesco's mother.

Vice-President of the European Commission , responsible for the Digital Agenda, said: "The EU is helping new innovations be an opportunity, not a barrier, for people with disabilities. Technologies can enable greater autonomy and social inclusion."

Read more about the TOBI project (also in French, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish).

Background

13 partners from Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the UK participated in TOBI. The EU invested €9 million in the project under the EU seventh framework programme for research and technological development (2007-2013). The new EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 #H2020 promises even more breakthroughs with €80 billion of funding available over the next 7 years (2014-2020).

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