“Quiet, Yet Powerful Thinking” SC State Students Operate Robot Using Brain Signals

Friday, August 13, 2010

Munnerlyn McCormick, and CainFull concentration is usually required when studying for an exam, completing a homework assignment or for carrying out any important task, but three SC State University students recently experienced quite the opposite.

On June 7, 2010, senior biology majors Ronda Munnerlyn, Rosie McCormick and alumnus Chadester Cain, embarked on a significant research experiment which would prove to test their level of quietude. Having to be completely relaxed, yet alert, the students were able to control the movement of a robot while only using their brain signals.

The method used is the recording of alpha rhythms in the human brain, similar to that attained during periods of meditation and enhanced relaxation. Once alpha rhythms have been willingly generated by the subjects’ brain in the proper time, the computer accepts the brain signals and transmits them to the robot, enabling its movement. This unique research is carried out by Dr. Liljana Bozinovska, associate professor of biology at SC State. Bozinovska was a member of the first research team in the world that published results of controlling a robot using brain signals.

In 2005, SC State was awarded a $1,058,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct neuroscience and brain-computer interface research. In addition to work with alpha signals, the research is also focused on anticipatory potentials produced by the brain. The research is also a part of the establishment of a master’s program in bio-robotics and biofabrication at SC State, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the NSF awarded in 2009. Currently, SC State in the only University in the state of South Carolina conducting such research.

“The students are participating in high technological activities and are exposed to research that many Universities have not yet participated in,” says Bozinovska. “Our hope is that computerized devices will be developed, which will provide assistance to those who are physically impaired. Through the use of their brain signals, individuals will be able to control devices that will assist with tasks such as turning on a television, moving prostheses and wheelchairs, and other devices in their surroundings,” noted Bozinovska.

Bozinovska’s students are equally amenable to the idea of helping others, which is their essential reason for participating in the research. Munnerlyn, who currently has the fastest record for bringing the robot to complete fruition, says, “I was really excited that I could be a part of something that would greatly benefit others. From the very beginning the research peaked my interest because it’s very innovative and will pave the way for new research to be conducted.”

Cain, who says his life purpose is based on helping others, was glad to return to his Alma Mater to participate in this extraordinary, life-changing research.

“I always try to do something positive for others,” expressed Cain. “I chose to focus my career on making sure I’m helping those who may be less fortunate and this is a great way to do that,” says the future health nutritionist, who will enroll in SC State’s Nutritional Sciences Graduate program in the fall.

While the students agree that the research is enjoyable, they note that it can be a little more difficult than it seems. The students have to ensure they remain relaxed, without being distracted and ensuring they don’t fall asleep. Initially, Bozinovska had to stress relaxation to her students while attempting to move the robot, something that is rarely found in a classroom or lab setting. Cain, who often conducted his research after leaving his job at a factory, occasionally found it difficult to unwind and focus on moving the robot. Within a brief timeframe, he would have to convert his thinking from maintaining physical endurance to acquiring a mental state of relaxation. Munnerlyn’s regimen for relaxation is to cross her arms and legs while staring off into space. McCormick prefers to stare at a nearby pillow and breathe slowly.

“You have to be able to think about absolutely nothing and control your mind,” said Munnerlyn. McCormick added, “you must be sure to have patience because it’s easy to lose focus or get frustrated while trying to control the robot. When it doesn’t move, you tend to get upset, but you have to be sure not to become tense in any way.” It can also be equally difficult to relax and forget about pressing tasks that awaits them, even for a few moments. Avoiding distractions proves to be challenging as well, noted the researchers. They have found that these distractions can arise from a car passing by playing loud music, strong sounds of thunder and high volume traffic from students changing classes.

Despite some challenges and a few distractions along the way, the students were able to successfully master the robotic operation in less than a month’s time, averaging a completion time of 3 to 5 minutes.

“When I first saw how quickly I was able to move the robot with only the signals from my brain I became overly excited and wanted to jump out of the chair. I had to calm down and regain composure to continue the robot’s movement,” laughed Cain.

Future research will be oriented toward controlling multiple robots, as well as exploring other types of signals produced by the human brain.