Brain-computer interface technology is moving out of the lab, and into our lives

Interfacing our brains with computers conjures visions of either plugging into the Matrix, or running through the forests of Pandora in Avatar. Linking mind to machine has been speculated about ever since we began to understand the intricacies of the nervous system—and how we can integrate it with computer technology. We can see this in early science-fiction tropes, as disembodied brains control numerous machines to perform some entity’s malevolent bidding.  


Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) have been around for quite some time. Jacques Vidal, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, who studied these systems during the 1970’s, coined the term BCI. The basic premise is that the human brain is a CPU that processes sensory information and sends out electrical signals as commands. It was a short leap of logic to hypothesize that computers can then be programmed to interpret these signals, and send out its own signals in the same language. By establishing this shared language, theoretically, brain and machine can talk to each other. 

Moving it … with feeling 

Many applications of BCI’s are in the field of neural rehabilitation. Scientists have long known that specific functions are localized in particular areas in the brain, and with this knowledge of the “brain map,” we can stimulate these areas to perform their respective functions. By implanting electrodes in the motor cortex for example, people with missing limbs can be taught to move or manipulate prostheses by “thinking” of moving one’s arm. Likewise, electrodes can be placed along a damaged spinal cord to send signals to move paralyzed limbs. This technology is also being used for visual prostheses, to replace or restore sight in certain individuals. 


For neuro-prostheses, the goal isn’t to just mimic lost motor function. For example, when we pick up an egg, our brains tell us just how firm our grasp should be, so we don’t crush it. Sharlene Flesher is part of a team from the University of Pittsburgh that is integrating this function into their prosthesis designs. By also targeting the area of the brain that “feels” or senses tactile stimulation (the somatosensory cortex), Flesher’s team hopes to re-create a semblance of a feedback mechanism that enables us to modulate touch and pressure—which is essential in performing the finer motor movements of the hand. 


Fiesher says, “to fully restore the function of an upper limb is to use our hands to interact with the environment, and to be able to feel what those hands are touching,” and in order, “to really manipulate objects, you need to know which fingers are in contact, how much force each finger is exerting, and then use that information to make the next movement.” 


The actual voltages at which the brain sends and receives impulses are very low−around 100 millivolts (mV). Obtaining and amplifying these signals has been a huge sticking point in BCI research. The traditional route of directly implanting electrodes in the brain or spinal cord carries the inevitable risks of surgical procedures, like bleeding or infection. On the other hand, non-invasive “neural baskets” like the ones used in electro-encephalograms (EEG’s) make signal reception and transmission difficult because of “noise.” The bony skull can diffuse the signals, and the outside environment can interfere with the uptake. Moreover, connecting to a computer requires intricate wiring that limits mobility, so most BCI set-ups right now are within the confines of a laboratory setting. 


Flesher admits these limitations have also restricted clinical applications to a defined population with access to these developments. She believes that involving more researchers from different fields could spur development and perhaps provide innovative solutions to these obstacles. 


“The work we’re doing should make others excited to explore this technology…experts in a variety of fields working towards the same goal is a much quicker path in bringing the best solutions to patients.” 


As a matter of fact, researchers and designers are exploring BCI more deeply, not only to overcome these limitations, but to develop new applications that have generated greater public interest. 

Out of the lab, and into the game 

From its beginnings as a student startup at the University of Michigan, Boston-based Neurable has now become one of the most visible players in the growing BCI field by exploring a different approach to BCI technology. Instead of building their own hardware, Neurable has developed proprietary software that uses algorithms to analyze and process signals from the brain.  


“At Neurable, we have re-understood how brain-waves work,” CEO and founder Dr. Ramses Alcaide explains. “We can now obtain those signals from standard EEG set-ups and combine this with our learning algorithms to cut through the noise to find the right signals, at high levels of speed and accuracy.” 


Another inherent advantage, according to Alcaide, is that their software development kit (SDK) is platform agnostic, which means that it can be applied to any compatible software or device. This separation from the ‘research lab’ mold is a conscious business decision by the company to open up the possibilities of where and how BCI technology can be applied. 


“Historically BCIs have been contained within the lab, and what we are doing is creating a product that everyone can benefit from, as our SDKs can be used in any capacity, medical or not.” 


This potential unshackling is making BCI technology attractive in numerous applications. In hazardous occupations like law enforcement or firefighting, simulating real-life scenarios without the requisite danger can prove invaluable to the training process. 


The potential commercial application in the field of gaming is also generating much excitement. Gaming enthusiasts are already dreaming of being totally immersed in a virtual world where the sensory environment is as close to reality as possible. Without a handheld controller, gamers can “think” of performing commands within a virtual environment. The race to create the most immersive gaming experience has prompted many companies to examine the commercial possibilities of BCI. Neurable sees the future in commercial BCI technology and are devoting resources to this path of development. 


“We want to see our technology embedded into as many software and hardware applications as possible,” says Alcaide. “Allowing people to interact with the world using only their brain-activity, this is the true meaning of our motto: a world without limitations.” 


Before plugging in… 

Some researchers are hesitant to dive into the development of BCI tech. Walter Glannon is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary and has published work on the ethics of BCI use. While he believes that BCI’s have the potential to help patients, Glannon cautions that there should be a discussion about the possible harmful effects. For example, psychological damage can result from unfulfilled expectations due to the promise associated with prosthesis technology. 


“The main issue has always been not just whether patients and the public can have access to this technology,” Glannon says, “but if there are adequate guidelines to protect them, particularly in investigational or experimental research.” 


Flesher agrees with the need for ethicists to ensure that patients or potential subjects are fully aware of the expected, but not guaranteed, results, as well as the accompanying risks. 


“The invasiveness emphasizes the importance of informed consent … also we have to be clear in setting our goals. Do we try to replicate unimpaired, ‘natural’ control of an upper limb, or will giving smaller degrees of freedom sufficient to improve quality of life?” 


And as the technology becomes more widely available, Glannon cautions newer ethical implications. There may be greater need to discuss these ethical issues, because the general public may not have the background knowledge to fully understand the consequences. And like other large virtual networks available to the public, these interfaces can become vulnerable, whether through negligence or outright malevolent intent. 


“Networks may become targets of unwanted external sources, which can inappropriately access neural information, or even disrupt or co-opt transmissions for intended actions…and especially if some have the ability to design and use their own systems, outside of approved settings, this simply underscores the need to regulate the industry to protect society from potential harm.” 


Despite these concerns, as both clinical and commercial applications arise, there will be the corresponding advances in technology to fill those needs. Researchers like Flesher welcome these developments as she sees, “a future where we can create a safe means of restoring sensation, and integrating this in BCI-programmed prostheses that can truly help amputees.” 


And as to that future of an augmented reality powered by BCI’s? Glannon concedes to the possibility, but points out that going down that path leads to even more questions. 


“In any environment, whether real or virtual, our nervous systems need the proprioceptive and somatosensory feedback. Without this, that disembodied brain may not be able to flexibly navigate—and survive—in those environments… Remotely-controlling a fully prosthetic counterpart is much different from our current model where artificial systems can supplement or take over normal brain function. In this postulated trans-human world, can our consciousness truly step outside our bodies and embed ourselves in other vessels?” 


This question will permeate the discussion of BCI technology as it is developed and integrated more fully into society.

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