The “mind over matter” maxim seems particularly apt with the latest brain-computer interface (BCI) advances, and it is no longer hard to imagine a time when people with a severely-impaired ability to move or communicate can lead a productive life. And BCI technology is emerging as an ergonomic way to address disability of many kinds.
The Open ViBE software program, developed with the support of INRIA, France’s digital technology research center, and INSERM, its national institute of health and medical research, focuses on making the interface easier to use. According to a recent news release about the technology, Open ViBE responds directly to the electrical activity of the brain rather than relying on a part of the patient’s body that still moves. The user chooses a letter in a grid of letters and looks at it. The computer examines brain activity to note the column and the row the user is looking at within the grid. Sensors in a cap worn by the user detect a reaction when the computer selects the right one. The researchers hold out the possibility of a faster process once software that predicts the user’s words can be built in.
"The main application of this technology is to provide some disabled people with a communication aid, especially those who have very severe motor disorders," said researcher Olivier Bertrand in a BBC News report about the Open ViBE.
A review of bionics advances designed for people with an array of disabilities in the September 2 issue of The Ergonomics Report® outlines a BCI project at Brown University (BU) in the United States that aims to improve mobility for victims of multiple sclerosis and paralysis. If BU’s BrainGate project proves itself in clinical trials in 2009, the brain could power equipment like a wheelchair. A microchip implanted in the brain of patients converts electrical impulses in neurons into signals that control computers, cursors and wheelchairs.
“If someone wants to move their wheelchair back and forth,” explained BU Associate Professor of Engineering Leigh Hochberg in a BU news release, “the relevant brain area would send a signal to the hands, regardless of the fact that the hands cannot move.”
The April 2009 issue of Wired magazine featured the brain-to-device message sent by University of Wisconsin biomedical engineer Adam Wilson. Instead of using his hands to type, Wilson used his brain. "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET," he thought.
"We’re more interested in the applications," said Justin Williams, head of the University of Wisconsin’s Neural Interfaces lab, in the Wired report. "How do we actually make these technologies useful for people with disabilities?"
BCI holds particular promise for locked-in patients and people in a coma, patients who are often perceived as being beyond reach in terms of communication.
"We always think they are not able to communicate or they are not able to understand what we are telling them," said INSERM researcher Bertrand, "but there are some indicators now from neuroscience research that they could have a way to understand our talk. … Probably their brains would be able to react to [OpenViBE], even though they are not able to move," he added.
Bertrand said that communication between man and machine will continue to improve as scientists further their own understanding of the brain’s capabilities.
Sources: INRIA; INSERM; BBC; The Ergonomics Report®; Wired