Revolutionary mind-controlled wheelchairs help paralyzed patients navigate obstacles

A successful trial has demonstrated the effectiveness of newly developed mind control wheelchairs in helping paraplegics navigate through obstacles.

The study, published in the journal iScience, found that non-invasive wheelchair manipulation enabled paralyzed patients to guide themselves through an obstacle course.

Participants who were quadrupeds were fitted with an electrode cap that allowed them to control the wheelchair. Once the cap was on, the patients had to focus on moving certain body parts they no longer controlled, such as their hands and feet.

“This purpose will be translated into real commands for the motors of the wheelchair that will make the wheels move at different speeds so that if one is faster than the other, it will turn into it in the opposite direction,” senior researcher, José del R. Millán, professor of neuroscience and chair of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, told USNews. “So if the right is faster than the left, it will automatically turn left and vice versa.”

Two of the three volunteers were able to maneuver the wheelchair with increasing accuracy as the training progressed. To move to the right, volunteers had to think about moving both legs, while to move the wheelchair to the left, volunteers had to think about moving both hands.

Currently, patients must undergo surgery to achieve a wheelchair-bound state of mind. This new non-invasive procedure, which does not require such surgery, may prove revolutionary.

“This is probably the first small study to get pretty good results without having to go into the brain,” Abbey Sawyer, a postdoctoral fellow at the Talent Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told USNews.

“There are many more invasive procedures that are entering the safety and feasibility phase of human trials at this point, but this is one of the first and probably one of the most effective non-invasive approaches,” Sawyer, who was not part of the study, added.

Three participants received training three times a week for two to five months. During the training, two participants showed excellent improvement, with accuracy increasing to 95% and 98% respectively from the initial 43%-55%.

“The main point of the paper is that if we train people long enough, they can reach a certain level over sophisticated devices like these brain-controlled wheelchairs,” Millan said.

However, commercial use of such mind-controlled wheelchairs still has a long way to go.

“There’s no realistic, adaptable way for people to do this on their own, and the training is pretty intense, so I don’t think it’s quite ready for prime time,” Dr. Anthony Ritaccio, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., said. “People are still working to make it easy and pleasant, because otherwise, why would it take decades?” It would have already been on the market.”

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