Controlling the movements of a helicopter just with your mind sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but scientists at the University of Minnesota have made it a reality. They have learnt to use their thoughts to steer a model helicopter around a gym, making it dip, rise, turn, and even fly through a ring.

The scientists have published their study in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

The development of brain computer interfacing (BCI) is to provide the user with the ability to communicate with the world outside and manipulate objects through thought modulation. Achieving this is accomplished through a closed loop of sensing, processing and actuation. Over the last ten years, scientists have made enormous progress in making it possible for us to move things by just thinking about it.

The robot takes its orders from a person's thoughts
Professor Bin He and team, who work in the laboratory of biomedical engineering, say that the technology they are developing may one day help people with neurodegenerative diseases, who have lost the ability to speak or move their bodies, regain function by controlling electronic and mechanical devices, such as artificial limbs, wheelchairs, etc.

The team say their technology is completely non-invasive. There are no brain implants. Brainwaves (electroencephalography, EEG) are picked up by electrodes fitted into an EEG cap that goes onto the scalp.

Professor He, who is a faculty member in the College of Science and Engineering, said:

"My entire career is to push for noninvasive 3-D brain-computer interfaces, or BCI. [Researchers elsewhere] have used a chip implanted into the brain's motor cortex to drive movement of a cursor [across a screen] or a robotic arm. But here we have proof that a noninvasive BCI from a scalp EEG can do as well as an invasive chip."

How does the brain-computer interface work

The motor cortex is an area of the cerebrum that controls movement. Prof. He's BCI system works thanks to the location of the motor cortex.

When humans move, or think about carrying out a movement, neurons in the motor cortex emit small electrical currents. Each thought regarding each different movement activates a new arrangement of neurons.

The groundwork for the BCI involved sorting out these neuron arrangements.

Professor He said "We were the first to use both functional MRI and EEG imaging to map where in the brain neurons are activated when you imagine movements. So now we know where the signals will come from."

According to the brain map, the easiest signals to distinguish were those that resulted in closing one fist, closing the other fist, or both.

He explained "This knowledge about what kinds of signals are generated by what kind of motion imagination helps us optimize the design of the system to control flying objects in real time."

Tapping the map

The EEG cap has 64 scalp-electrodes. They monitor the electrical activity coming from the brain and report signals (or absence of signals) to a computer. The computer processes the data and translates the pattern into an electronic command.

Using thoughts to control movement occurred initially with the one-dimensional movement of a cursor on a computer monitor. Researchers then moved a two-dimensional cursor, and finally achieved 3-D control over a virtual helicopter.

Now it is a real object, they are able to control an actual flying robot drone which was formally an augmented reality.

To control the model helicopter with just thoughts, the team's computers interface with the WiFi controls in the robot (helicopter). After processing the EEG brain signals into a command, the computer sends the command to the helicopter by WiFi.

The researchers describe how the team, consisting of five scientists, learned to guide the flying robot.

Karl LaFleur, a senior biomedical engineering student, said:

"Working for Dr. He has been a phenomenal experience. He has so much experience with the scientific process, and he is excellent at helping his students learn this process while allowing them room for independent work. Being an author on a first-person journal article is a huge opportunity that most undergraduates never get."

LaFleur, who is entering medical school next year, says he plans to put his knowledge into use there.

LeFleur continued:

"I think the potential for BCI is very broad. Next, we want to apply the flying robot technology to help disabled patients interact with the world. It may even help patients with conditions like stroke or Alzheimer's disease. We're now studying some stroke patients to see if it'll help rewire brain circuits to bypass damaged areas."

Previous studies on using just thoughts

In 2011, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC Rehabilitation Institute created a computer interface that helped a paralyzed man move a prosthetic arm just with thoughts. All he needed to do was use his thoughts and the arm moved.

Researchers from the University of Essex and the University of Plymouth, both in England, created technology that allowed a patient with locked-in syndrome to play music just by thinking about it. They published their study in the journal Music and Medicine (March 2011 issue).

Written by Christian Nordqvist