Scientists unveil mind-controlling avatar

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Swiss scientists on Tuesday unveiled a robot that can be controlled by  paralyzed persons through thoughts alone, a step they hope will one day allow immobile people to interact with their surroundings through so-called avatars.

The team at Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne carried out their demonstration  by using only a simple head cap to record the brain signals of Mark-Andre Duc (a paralysed man), at a hospital in the southern Swiss town of Sion.

Duc’s thoughts — or rather, the electrical signals emitted by his brain when he imagined lifting his paralyzed fingers — were decoded almost instantly by a laptop at the hospital. The resulting instructions — left or right — were then transmitted to a foot-tall robot scooting around the Lausanne lab.

Besides making paraplegics mobile, neuroprosthetics could be used to help patients recover lost senses, researchers said.

Professor Stephanie Lacour and her team are working on an “electric skin” for amputees, a glove fitted with tiny sensors that would send information directly to the user’s nervous system.

Eventually, researchers say they hope to create mechanised prosthetics that are as mobile and sensitive as a natural hand, Lacour said.

Other researchers at Lausanne are working on enabling 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,” said Professor Gregoire Courtine.

He said he is currently setting up clinical trials and hopes to run tests at Zurich’s university hospital within a year.

But the technology has its limits, the brain signals can be scrambled if too many people are gathered around a wheelchair, for example.