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Will the real BCI please stand up?

March 3, 2010

As reported today in the UK’s The Register, a research team based at the University of Maryland is scheduled to publish a breakthrough in brain computer interfacing in this week’s issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

The team, led by José Contreras-Vidal, reports that they have been able to discriminate enough information from EEG signals to accurately reconstruct 3-dimensional hand movements. I’m itching to see the paper itself because–assuming it is legit–this will be a remarkable advancement in extracting information about intention from extra-cranial sensors.

For several years, now, research teams have been able to interface sub-cranial EEG sensors directly to the brain in order to allow–for example–paralyzed individuals to direct prosthetic limbs using their mind. To date, however, sensors positioned outside the skull on the surface of the head and face have been relatively low-yield for intentional, sophisticated movements. (One only need to spend 3 minutes playing with games such as NeuroSky’s “Adventures of Neuroboy” to appreciate how low-grade the current extra-cranial EEG interface world truly is.) Part of the problem is that the brain’s electrical signal–while already faint–is even further dampened by the insulating properties of the bones of the skull. Another messy complication for extra-cranial EEG measurements is the huge electrical spiking caused by muscular activity that distorts or masks the already-weak electrical signal coming from the brain directly. How did the Contreras-Vidal group overcome these obstacles? Well…stay tuned to find out. (As of the original publication of this blog post, the Contreras-Vidal paper is still pre-press.)

What to expect from this? Well, given the fact that the Contreras-Vidal, et al, method for brain computer interface (BCI)-driven 3D motility doesn’t require the itsy-bitsy complication of open brain surgery, this seems like it will have huge potential for rapid adaptation to the general consumer market. I can’t even wrap my mind around all of the potential applications for this type of technology–from medical interventions for individuals with motor impairments, to lifestyle enhancement and convenience applications, to gaming and entertainment–not to mention the numbers of individuals who will be more drawn to neuroscience and engineering due to the inherently interesting appeal of brain machine interfaces (thus ultimately accelerating the progress of neuro/tech development).

Let me know your thoughts–are you at all nervous about our journey as we plunge toward an ultra teched-out society? What are you most excited about with respect to the fast-approaching BCI future? As with any emergence scenario, it is literally impossible for us to predict the full breadth of changes that we will encounter in lifestyle and culture as these thrilling technologies begin to saturate the social fabric. At the same time, however, it’s a fallacy to think of the future as something that happens to us. Indeed, the future is what we create.

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5 Comments
  1. Very cool stuff. I’m not educated in the ways of the brain, but fortunately you word it in a completely digestible way. Neuroscience has interested me for some time now, but I know very little about it. I’ve incidentally considered it as a possible direction for graduate school, but now that I’ve read your mention of increased interest in the field, I’m inclined not to because I don’t want to be one of the masses joining in just because it’s getting “fun”. 😉

    OK, I’ll leave the real discussion for the colleagues rather than the acquaintances, now.

  2. positiveneuro permalink

    Hey JJ. All discussion is welcome. Regarding grad school, it’s still going to be a little while before it becomes completely mainstream–you can still be ahead of the curve! 🙂

    A book that might interest you is called “The Neuro Revolution.” It can be a bit sensational in some places, but all in all it’s a great read to stimulate the imagination on how the world is going to be changing in lock step with our growing understanding about how the brain works.

  3. Carl Youngblood permalink

    What I’m most excited for is future computer interfaces. I believe that we will arrive at a point where you will automatically know how to use a program because it will make its affordances directly perceptible to your brain.

  4. Machine learning must advance. Could I pass a Turing test? could you? Would an uploaded human intelligence count as artificial? The nervous system developed as a means for running certain systems. AI will develop along the same lines as is apparent in the automotive crisis of today. As an instrument of learning (not teaching) the brain has already been there as well. ( The brain followed an animal path and its animal concerns.) The machine as a Monitor in quick live time is nothing new. Wherever “true” progress in AI is to begin, the BCI needs it now in order to launch.

  5. From the computer,the EEG paper will show ??????

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