Jose Millan
Jose Millan,a researcher at the Federal Polytechnic School in Switzerland, created a technology that allows partial paraplegics to control a robot using thought. Credit: Federal Polytechnic School Federal Polytechnic School

Robotic engineers showed off a robot Tuesday that allows partial paraplegics to control a robot through thoughts recorded via an electrode-studded cap at a demonstration at Switzerland's Federal Institute of Technology.

The mind control technology, still in its infancy, gives hope that partial paraplegics may one day interact with their surroundings through robotic avatars, researchers said Tuesday.

Partial paraplegic Mark-Andre Duc cannot control his legs or fingers, yet controlled the movements of a robot located 60 miles (100 kilometers) away with his thoughts.

Controlling the robot was not hard most days, though when I'm in pain it becomes more difficult, Duc told the Associated Press.

Electrical activity caused by pain or by the mind wandering tends to disrupt the remote-control signal, Jose Millian, lead researcher for the project and associate professor of electrical engineering at Federal Polytechnic School in Switzerland, told the AP.

Sooner or later your attention will drop and this will degrade the signal, Millan said.

To help, researchers programmed the robot to continue commands until the user requested a different command. For example, a robot that receives an order to walk forward will walk until the user tells it to stop or it encounters an obstacle. This allows the user to expend less energy controlling the robot.

Once the movement has begun, the brain can relax, otherwise the person would soon be exhausted, Millan said.

The technique is not new but has a distinct advantage over former approaches that used invasive brain implants or involved non-paralyzed patients, researchers said.

An electrode-studded cap worn by the patient records brain electrical signals to a laptop, which decodes and uses the signals to control a robot that feeds video back to the user. In the future, paraplegics may be able to use the cap to control a virtual avatar and interact with their surroundings, despite being unable to physically move.

The technology still has several bugs to work out before the product is clinically tested, researchers said. For example, the cap can become confused if there are too many people in the vicinity, researchers said.

Other research groups are working on machines remotely controlled by thoughts. The car manufacturer Toyota created a wheelchair controlled by a brain cap that relays electrical signals to a computer that controls a motorized wheelchair. The entire process happens in 125-thousandths of a second.

Other researchers at the Federal Polytechnic School are working towards further methods of improving the quality of life of paraplegics. One team is developing an electric skin that users would wear like a glove. The glove contains sensors that relay electrical signals directly to the nervous system. Another team is developing a technique that would allow paraplegics to walk again with electrodes implanted in their spinal cords.

The goal is that after a year of training with a robotic aide, the patient will be able to walk without a robot. The electrodes would stay implanted for life, Gregoire Courtine, lead researcher and associate professor of life sciences at the Federal Polytechnic School, told Discovery News.

Clinical trials for Courtine's technology should begin within a year, he said.