With support from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), biomedical engineer Bin He and his team at the University of Minnesota have created a brain-computer interface with the goal of helping people with disabilities, such as paralysis, regain the ability to do everyday tasks.
Currently, the researchers are testing out their system using a flying object known as a quadcopter, and controlling it with someone’s thoughts! For the experiments, the team uses both an actual flying quadcopter and a virtual one. In both experiments, the interface is non-invasive, so there are no implants. Participants wear an electro-encephalography, or EEG, cap with 64 electrodes. When the participant thinks about a specific movement, neurons in his or her brain’s motor cortex produce tiny electric signals, which are sent to a computer. The computer processes the signals and sends directions through a Wi-Fi system to direct the quadcopter.
He and his team chose the quadcopter for this testing phase to keep participants engaged, but the interface is designed to help in the real world with everyday tasks, such as turning on the lights or surfing the internet.
Imagine living a life in which you are completely aware of the world around you but you’re prevented from engaging in it because you are completely paralyzed. Even speaking is impossible. For an estimated 50,000 Americans, this is a harsh reality. It’s called locked-in syndrome, a condition in which people with normal cognitive brain activity suffer severe paralysis, often from injuries or an illness such as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Boston University neuroscientist Frank Guenther works with the NSF’s Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology (CELEST), which is made up of eight private and public institutions, mostly in the Boston area. Its purpose is to synthesize the experimental modeling and technological approaches to research in order to understand how the brain learns as a whole system. In particular, Guenther’s research is looking at how brain regions interact, with the hope of melding mind and machine, and ultimately making life much better for people with locked-in syndrome. “People who have no other means of communication can start to control a computer that can produce words for them or they can manipulate what happens in a robot and allow them to interact with the world,” Guenther says about his research.