Fall 2022

From science fiction to science

A University-developed device allows upper-limb amputees to control a robotic arm using only their thoughts


Move an object using only the power of the mind? Today it’s a reality, thanks to research from the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering

Working with industry collaborators, the U team created a small, implantable device that attaches to the peripheral nerve in a person’s arm. When combined with an artificial intelligence computer and a robotic arm, the device can read and interpret brain signals, allowing upper-limb amputees to control the arm using only their thoughts.

“If they want to move a finger, all they have to do is think about moving that finger.”
Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen, Ph.D.

Many current commercial prosthetic limbs use a cable and harness system controlled by the shoulders or chest, and more advanced prosthetic limbs use sensors to pick up on subtle muscle movements in a person’s existing limb above the device. But both options can be cumbersome and unintuitive—and take months of practice to be used effectively.

What sets the U-developed technology apart is the incorporation of artificial intelligence, which uses machine learning to help interpret the signals from the nerve. 

“Our technology knows the patient’s intention,” says postdoctoral researcher Jules Anh Tuan Nguyen, Ph.D. “If they want to move a finger, all they have to do is think about moving that finger.”

The technology has benefits not only for amputees but also for people who suffer from neurological disorders and chronic pain, says Zhi Yang, Ph.D., an associate professor of biomedical engineering.

Says Nguyen: “It’s fun getting to develop new technologies, but if you’re just doing experiments in a lab, it doesn’t directly impact anyone. I can get really emotional when I can help [amputees] move their finger or help them do something that they didn’t think was possible before.”