Imagine a world where a person paralysed and mute due to “locked-in syndrome” can communicate with family by thought, where the cognitive ability of a surgeon could be greatly enhanced or where signs of sleepiness in long-distance truck drivers could be immediately spotted. This is all possible thanks to brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
The brain is the most mysterious organ, and it still holds many secrets far beyond the reach of science or medicine. However, the physical barrier between our brains and the computers we interact with daily are breaking down fast. BCI researchers are now able to decode our brainwaves, and, thus, our thoughts, and link these directly with devices.
BCIs are being developed at the laboratory of Tomás Ward, professor of data analytics at Dublin City University, to enhance and restore human cognitive abilities. “By cognition we mean aspects of thinking relating to paying attention, staying focused – and concentration,” he says. “Our [study] participants interact in virtual worlds and we are seeking to monitor how they pay attention and engage in these worlds.”
The use of BCIs to monitor and improve measures of “mental fitness” is similar to how many of us seek to improve our physical fitness by wearing fitness trackers that provide feedback data on the number of steps taken, and calories that were burned, adds Ward, who is also director of the Insight SFI Research for Data Analytics at DCU.
Scientists have been able to read the electrical signals in the brain for almost a century now. The early pioneer was German psychiatrist Hans Berger, who invented the field of electroencephalography – which measures the electrical activity of the brain – in 1924 when he inserted silver electrical conducting wires under some of his patients’ scalps.
Later, Berger used silver foil electrodes attached to the head by a rubber band. Much later still, in the 21st century, scientists began to use digital technologies for measuring brainwaves, with a computer reading and interpreting the data. Then the focus moved to measuring brainwaves in real time and influencing how brainwaves are produced.
In 2008, Philip Kennedy, a US-based Irish neurologist, implanted a device onto the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, enabling them to “speak” using a speech synthesiser. The electrode released chemicals that allowed brain cells to grow on it.
The problem with this approach, though revolutionary, was that it required surgery. The funding for Kennedy’s work fell off, and he felt compelled to implant an electrode into his own brain, as the only way to progress his work. Meanwhile, other scientists were busy working on developing less invasive ways of measuring our brainwaves.
Non-invasive approaches to BCIs generally involve the wearing of specially-designed caps, with built-in electrodes. The patients are required to put gel on their heads, underneath the caps, to help conduct the brainwaves into little electrodes. The use of gel on hair is unpopular with many patients, and efforts are being made to develop “dry electrodes” without gel – which makes the job of detecting brainwaves even harder.
Watching brainwaves is like staring at the sea, with waves going up and down. As scientists got better at brainwave watching, they noticed a series of tiny, little wave “perturbations” that seemed to happen as the brain responded to a stimulus. The most interesting of these “brain blips” was called p300. This perturbation was spotted about 300 milliseconds after the brain had responded to something in the environment. It was a breakthrough. Scientists now knew what people paid attention to and when.
Now that scientists had a signal that told them when people were paying attention, the question they wanted to ask was whether people’s capacity to pay better attention could be harnessed to produce therapeutically beneficial results for patients. The answer was yes, and technology was developed that trained people to produce brainwaves that would indicate individual letters, for example, enabling them to type with thought.
A challenge for researchers has been to develop BCIs to effectively monitor people as they move around in their daily lives. Professor of neurotechnology at Ulster University Damien Coyle has achieved this with a product that is the result of more than 17 years of work and emerged out of his spin-out company called NeuroConcise.
“It’s a flexible, mouldable technology that folds around the head,” says Coyle. “There are no wires, no boxes, a cap with electrodes. The technology sits inside the cap. It’s not obtrusive and can be worn under standard head gear – hats, caps and wigs.”
BCIs are also being developed to augment human intellectual and emotional skills and ability. For example, there is research looking at how the performance of surgeons in the operating theatre might be enhanced through BCI mind training. Other work is looking at how to help athletes and musicians to get into the “zone” to perform best.
The brain is plastic, which means it is capable of change, even structural change, if certain areas are used on a regular basis. There is an idea that, in the future, BCIs could be used as a form of a cognitive gym, where people maintain or improve brain fitness. BCIs could help train or enhance brain regions associated with, for example artistic or mathematical abilities, or to build up a mental reserve to protect against dementia.
BCIs can also be applied to mindfulness and meditation which have become popular methods of reducing stress and augmenting mental wellbeing. The idea here is to train the brain to stay in the present rather than drifting off to worry about the future or ruminate about the past. BCIs could be used to show when meditation practice is positively impacting their brain, and this feedback can help people to improve their practices.
Improving the ability of the algorithms used in BCIs to decode patterns of brain activity – especially the pathways that connect the brain to the muscles which are so crucial to patients after a stroke – is the focus of Dr Kathy Ruddy’s Health Research Board funded work at the Trinity Institute of Neurosciences based at TCD.
“A really good thing for stroke patients to do is imagine movement, or imagine doing the function that they have lost,” Ruddy says. “Essentially that is what brain computer interfaces are doing; they are just providing a platform for that.”
Transport is another area where BCIs are being applied, with transport companies looking to a future where autonomous vehicles will be run by a remote operator who is ready to intervene and take control if a vehicle gets into difficulty. Here BCIs could help to determine when an operator is getting tired, and needs to hand over to another operator, or to inform the vehicles that they must run themselves while he rests.
In the world of art, BCIs could be used to develop virtual art galleries where the brains of people could be monitored as they observe the works of art. This is neuroaesthetics, where researchers measure how brains behave when they are enjoying something artistic. The idea is to develop personalised virtual art galleries, or an art-recommender engine for people based on brain measures of engagement, enjoyment and curiosity.
Another strand of BCI research is focused on human-robot interactions. Robots are set to become ubiquitous in society, and scientists in the field of social robotics are working on ways humans can better interact with them. One goal is to enable robots to recognise and understand a person’s emotional state, and to react appropriately to that state. The analysis of data by AI from a robot’s cameras and microphones will make this happen.
In coming years, experts believe that BCIs will be used at home, as the technology emerges from the laboratory. “I think we will see them used more regularly among older people for brain training and ‘mental gymnasia’,” Ward believes. “In the medical domain we will see them offered as an option for patients who have suffered severe disability as a means of communication and interaction with the outside world.”