Amputees control avatar by imagining moving their missing limbs

Jun 23, 2017

By Sam Wong

People who have had amputations can control a virtual avatar using their imagination alone, thanks to a system that uses a brain scanner.

Brain-computer interfaces, which translate neuron activity into computer signals, have been advancing rapidly, raising hopes that such technology can help people overcome disabilities such as paralysis or lost limbs. But it has been unclear how well this might work for people who have had limbs removed some time ago, as the brain areas that previously controlled these may become less active or repurposed for other uses over time.

Ori Cohen at IDC Herzliya, in Israel, and colleagues have developed a system that uses an fMRI brain scanner to read the brain signals associated with imagining a movement. To see if it can work a while after someone has had a limb removed, they recruited three volunteers who had had an arm removed between 18 months and two years earlier, and four people who have not had an amputation.

While lying in the fMRI scanner, the volunteers were shown an avatar on a screen with a path ahead of it, and instructed to move the avatar along this path by imagining moving their feet to move forward, or their hands to turn left or right. The people who had had arm amputations were able to do this just as well with their missing hand as they were with their intact hand. Their overall performance on the task was almost as good as of those people who had not had an amputation.

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