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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Wheelchair steered by brainpower
The research could transform the lives of quadriplegics
People who are severely disabled could soon be able to use their mind to move around.

European researchers are developing a wheelchair that can be steered by brainpower.

Users wear an electrode-lined skullcap which reads electrical activity on the surface of the head.

Cutting-edge technology turns these readings into wheelchair movements, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

Mind control

The technology could transform the lives of people who are quadriplegic.

The wheelchair is still in early stages of development but tests are going well.

It's a very positive step
Paul Smith,
Spinal Injuries Association
At the moment, the system works on a simple wheeled robot.

Scientists have been able to move it in three different directions - left, right and forward - using the electrode cap.

The cap reads activity in the brain, a technique, known as electroencephalography (EEG).

This works because a desire to move in a particular direction generates a unique pattern of pattern of brain activity.

Those readings are fed to a computer. State-of-the-art software analyses the readings and turns them into commands, which are passed on to the robot using a wireless link.

The robot is programmed to turn or move only at the next opportunity, which is designed to stop it from hitting or bumping into other objects.

It is also equipped with infrared sensors which can detect other objects.

The technology is being developed by scientists at the Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence in Switzerland, in conjunction with researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the Centre for Biomedical Engineering Research in Barcelona.

Brain activity

Other scientists have also tried to use EEG in this way. However, up until now this has proved difficult because the technology can only read a fixed amount of brain activity.

This has meant that users must close their eyes and relax to try to reduce activity in other areas of the brain.

This sort of approach would be impractical for anyone wishing to use the technology to move a wheelchair.

However, this latest technology can read move brain activity and the scientists are working on plans to increase its capabilities.

It is also relatively easy to use. Tests have shown users can master it after just two days training.

Jose Millan who works at the Dalle Molle Institute said extensive work will be needed before the technology could be offered to the public.

He said tests still need to be carried out to see if the technology is as effective when someone is sitting in the wheelchair.

There is concern that the flurry in brain activity associated with sitting in the chair could affect the technology.

But Paul Smith of the UK's Spinal Injuries Association hailed the technology.

"It's a very positive step," he said. "The psychological benefits it would offer are huge."


SEE ALSO:
Wheelchair 'walks' down stairs
26 Jun 03  |  North West Wales
Unlocking the brain's potential
10 Mar 01  |  Health


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