Brain Meets Machine: The Art and Science of Brain-Computer Interfaces

Have you ever studied a foreign language and wished you could upload the vocabulary lists directly into your brain so that you could retain them? Would you like to do mental math with the speed and accuracy of a calculator? Do you want a literal photographic memory? Well, these dreams are still the stuff of science fiction, but the brave new world of brain-computer interfaces, or BCI, is well on its way to making technological miracles of this sort a reality.

The story of BCI begins with the discovery of electrical signals emitted by the brain. In 1924, German scientist Hans Berger recorded the first electroencephalogram, or EEG, by placing electrodes under a person’s scalp. Although his research was at first met with derision, a whole new way to study the brain was born from his work. It is now well accepted that the human brain emits electric signals at a variety of frequencies currently known as brainwaves.

BCI researchers attempt to harness these signals to create some desired effect in the world outside the brain. In other words, BCI seeks to make things happen based on a thought in a person’s head. Actually, humans do this all the time when they decide to do anything. A person thinks, “I’m thirsty; I need a drink,” and then the brain sends a litany of instructions to the extremities that allows the person to pour a glass of water, lift it to their mouth, swallow the water, and so on. Most of us go through our days executing these kinds of actions, which require complex interaction between the body and brain, without giving them a second thought.

Current BCI research is primarily focused on helping people who have lost the ability to affect their environment in ways that the rest of us take for granted. Quadriplegic Jan Scheuermann, for example, has already regained a critical skill through the wonders of BCI — the ability to feed herself chocolate. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh trained her to control a robotic arm, through her brainwaves alone, to pick up the candy and to guide it to her mouth. Numerous other studies have accomplished similar goals, allowing people to do simple things they thought they would never do again — such as drinking a cup of water or brushing their teeth — due to paralysis or loss of limbs.

It is even conceivable that those suffering from loss of mobility will someday be able to walk with the aid of BCI and robotic legs. In one study, a monkey walking on a treadmill at Duke University was able to make a set of robotic legs move in Japan — halfway around the world — with signals sent from his brain.

People are also regaining the power of self-expression through BCI. Current technology allows people to choose letters on a computer screen with their brainwaves, which are read through a cap with multiple sensors worn on the subject’s head in order to spell out letters and form sentences.

Similarly, researchers have been able to detect “yes” or “no” responses to questions presented to people who lack communication ability due to debilitating diseases like Lou Gehrig’s disease and locked-in syndrome.

BCI programs are also making creative expression possible for people who lack motor ability, allowing them to paint digital pictures using brain activity. Through thought alone, they are able to choose shapes and colors and to arrange their choices into pleasing compositions.

The resulting paintings have been exhibited in art galleries, and research subjects reported great satisfaction in being able to express themselves this way for the first time. However, handicapped people are not the only ones who are likely to benefit from BCI.

Soon, we may not have to flip a switch, click a mouse, or press a button; we’ll just think it instead. Researchers at Samsung are exploring how people can use their thoughts to interact with a tablet computer. In the near future, you might be using your mind to turn on your computer, launch an app, or send an email.

BCI could be used to eliminate some of the minute activities of daily life, like closing the garage door or starting the car. Instead of “clap on, clap off,” maybe we’ll soon be able to “think on, think off” the lights in our houses. And a BCI system has already been developed that allows people to control an Internet browser with their brainwaves.

Of course, BCI will bring lots of fun to the world. Already, you can buy a BCI game called “Force Trainer,” produced by NeuroSky. To play the game, you wear a headset that senses your brainwaves. Like a Jedi Knight from the “Star Wars” movies, you attempt to lift a ball using only your mind.

They have also developed other games that allow gamers to chase zombies and accomplish a multitude of interactive tasks through the power of concentration. Another company, Emotiv, is looking at how emotions and their resulting brainwaves can interact with games and other exciting virtual experiences.

Currently, BCI research focuses primarily on replacing lost function for those who lack physical abilities. In the future, however, the emphasis may turn to enhancing or supplementing normal function. For example, a simple application might be a BCI device in an automobile that senses when a driver is falling asleep; the driver could then be warned to prevent an accident. As neuroscientific understanding of the brain increases, it is likely that technology will go far beyond the realm of motor function, perhaps aiding with memory recall, decision-making, and other kinds of cognitive function.

Really, the possible applications for BCI are limited only by the human imagination. Someday, perhaps in the not too distant future, we may have very different ways of interacting with each other as we are assisted and enhanced by computer systems. There is great positive potential in it, as well as some serious ethical concerns to consider. Whatever the future brings, brain-computer interface is already making its indelible mark on the exciting and ever-expanding worlds of neuroscience and technology.

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