The severely disabled have been given a new hope of regaining some of their skills with a recently concluded project exploring brain-computer interaction.
The TOBI (Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction) project, funded by the European Union from the Seventh Framework Programme, focused on developing techniques to enable quadriplegics to use a computer by the mere power of their thoughts to steer an exploratory robot around or even move their limbs with the help of supporting electrodes.
"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, Geiser was able to communicate by typing email messages via a computer cursor controlled through his brain waves.
The project included three experiments, each focusing on a different skill. In all three instances, the subjects – patients with severe physical disabilities – were instructed to control objects by thinking about the desired effect, with the electrical signals being transmitted from their brains through electrodes attached to a cap into a computer.
In the first experiment, patients learned to control a computer cursor, type and write emails and texts – a major breakthrough which gave them the ability to take full advantage of Internet and computer technology.
The second setting used a small remote-controlled telepresence robot, which the patients were instructed to send out to take them for virtual walks or to meet with other people.
Probably the most exciting part of the experiment focused on using patients’ own brain power to control electrodes attached to their lifeless limbs to generate movement. The technique was so successful in some patients that they managed to retain the ability to move their limbs even after the electrodes had been removed following intensive rehabilitation and training.
"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 in Switzerland.
Unlike other similar projects, the TOBI experiments didn’t require any invasive surgical procedures such as brain implants on the tested subjects, all of whom where actual disability sufferers.
The scientists said the technology users became an integral part of the research team. "We listened to the feedback of all the patients to correct design mistakes and made any changes right away,” said Professor Millán.
“We also took into consideration the feedback of professional end users who worked with the patients in hospital."
Thirteen partners from Austria, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the UK participated in the TOBI project, which received €9m from the European funds.