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In this June 16, 2009, photo released by Riken on Monday, a researcher operates a wheelchair that can be steered by detecting the user's brain waves, at Riken Brain Science Institute in Wako, near Tokyo, Japan. ((Riken/Associated Press))

Toyota-sponsored researchers in Japan unveiled a brain-machine interface system on Monday that allows a person to use thoughts to direct the motion of a wheelchair.

The system processes thought patterns and translates them into actions for the wheelchair, allowing for movement left, right or forward.

The delay between the thought and the wheelchair action is as little as 125 milliseconds, according to the BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center, which demonstrated the technology on Monday.

The system measures electrical activity in the brain through five electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes placed above the areas of the brain that handle motor movement. The sensors interpret the signals they pick up and translate them into motion.

The system is capable of adjusting itself to the individual user to improve accuracy, the researchers said. At its best performance, the system achieved an accuracy rate of 95 per cent.

The system also incorporates some basic motor controls: a demonstration video of the systems shows a researcher puffing out a cheek to make an emergency stop.

A number of other Japanese companies, including Honda and Hitachi, have begun work on brain-machine interface technologies. In April, Honda unveiled a system that sensed a researcher's thoughts and then relayed them wirelessly to the Asimo robot, which then acted out the command, lifting its right arm when the researcher thought about raising his right arm.

Though the brain-machine interface technology is still in developmental stages, Toyota researchers are hoping their wheelchair interface will be useful for rehabilitation and for support of people who use the vehicles.

Japan boasts one of the most advanced robotics industries in the world, and the government has encouraged that development as both a road to growth and also as a means of assisting a rapidly aging population.

Japan is facing a demographic shift, as a large percentage of its population is expected joins the ranks of the elderly in the next 50 years. In 2006, seniors accounted for about 20 per cent of the population: by 2056 that percentage is expected to rise to 40 per cent of the total population, according to the country's Health Ministry.