Develop non-invasive brain-machine interfaces for rehabilitation of people with motor limitation and help them to be able to walk in the future. This is the ambitious project in which the research group of the Miguel Hernández University (UMH) of Elche led by Professor José María Azorín. For exoskeletons to help people walk, university researchers focus their efforts on the interpretation of brain information, so they are applying different techniques based on artificial intelligence.
In the process of intention to walk, a series of patterns are generated in the brain and the objective is to record this activity, transfer it to a computer that allows its treatment and analysis, and send the walk signal to the exoskeleton so that the structure facilitates movement. The work being carried out by the UMH researchers is framed within one of the international nodes of the Brain Center, an American entity for collaborative research between industry and university in the field of neurotechnology.
“Within the framework of the Brain Center, we develop technological applications to help people with motor limitations to walk. Two weeks ago we did tests in Toledo with spinal injuries. The result was positive, since our system has been validated with patients. Now the goal is to start clinical trials before the end of the year. We have done tests with real patients that guarantee that it is possible to improve their gait, “explains Azorín himself in a statement to this newspaper in which he alludes to the Toledo Paraplegic Hospital, a national reference center.
What happens in the brain of the person when he intends to walk? This is the big question that the UMH researchers want to answer. For this they focus on cases of people with reduced mobility, either by accident or having suffered, for example, a stroke. In these situations, the signal that is generated in the brain does not reach the muscle directly. To do this, we are working on a line that has European funding and that is part of the investigation of brain processes: they record and classify encephalographic signals to determine those related to the gait process using algorithms and pattern classifications.
The algorithms with which Azorín’s group works extract the main characteristics of the signal and a classifier determines whether or not the patterns correspond to the intention of starting or stopping the march. For this they are put into practice artificial intelligence techniques related to pattern recognition and with computational models of neural networks. This UMH research also works in the field of so-called “machine-learning” techniques, which seek to train the algorithm to learn about brain patterns. “It is a mutual learning process, in which the person learns to modulate their brain signals and the machine adapts to the patterns that are being created,” says Azorín.
Another line of research outside the field of health in which the UMH team also uses artificial intelligence techniques is in the study of creative ability. In this field, the objective is to try to determine what is the artistic capacity of a person in relation to his brain activity. “This is an incipient line of research in which we intend to analyze whether there are related patterns among those people who demonstrate a high creative capacity,” concludes the university professor at the helm of the project.
The work of the Brain-Machine Interface Systems Lab research group, led by José María Azorín, does not remain alone on the Elche campus of the Miguel Hernández University (UMH). Proof of this are the numerous collaborations that university researchers maintain, both with national entities, such as the Toledo Paraplegic Hospital, a national reference center, and with foreign institutions. In fact, the UMH has become part of the international Brain Center, a unit that is made up of a large number of companies and hospitals in the United States.
The work carried out by Professor Azorín and his group has the support of the Vice-Rectors for International Relations and Research and Innovation. “Scientific collaborations between universities are the best tools to generate stable, successful and lasting relationships between institutions”, assures the vice-rector Vicente Micol, who stands out, among the collaborations maintained by the UMH in the field of neurotechnology, which exists with the University of Houston, with which there is a mobility and exchange agreement for students, professors and researchers.
The presence of the Elche institution in the Brain Center also facilitates access to new funding opportunities for research projects.
Implants less harmful than the current ones in the future
When the professor José María Azorín is asked about the future of this field, he points to the development of brain-machine interfaces implanted in a very harmless way for the user, with which the nerves will be stimulated internally, without the need for of an exoskeleton in those cases where possible. “There will not be exoskeletons nor will there be visible helmets with electrodes,” advances an Azorín who also refers to “electroceuticals”: electronic devices that are implanted to record the activity of the nervous system and act on it.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.