Brain Interface Technology

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A brain-computer interface aims to create a direct communication pathway between the brain and an external device. These devices can enhance the normal cognitive functions of the human mind or even be used to reproduce functions that have been lost to the unaided mind. BCIs differ from neuroprosthetics (such as cochlear implants to assist hearing in the deaf or partially deaf) in that they connect the brain directly to a computer rather than a device. Due to this nature, BCIs generally have a more narrow and specific zone of the central nervous system that they interact with.

Medical Applications


While neuroprosthetics have had more public attention, BCIs have also entered human testing and implementation to attempt to restore basic functions that have been lost to a patient over time. One type of BCI aimed at assisting the handicapped is an invasive BCI that is implanted directly into the brain to help correct blindness. Although this application has only been used in patients who lost sight (as opposed to those who never had sight to begin with), it has seen some moderate success. The BCI is implanted directly into the visual cortex of the brain and connects to a set of camera lens glasses. The camera records the external world and sends the information to the BCI with electrical impulses. The BCI then stimulates the visual cortex to mimic how sight is naturally produced. The first human to have this invasive BCI procedure is a patient named "Jerry". At the time, the BCI allowed Jerry to see in shades of grey and distinguish some shapes and movement at a very low framerate. This also required the computing power of a two-ton mainframe. However, as technology has advanced, the computing power of the mainframe has been transfered to the BCI itself allowing blind patients to be given more mobile versions of Jerry's BCI.
Jans Nausmann, the first patient to receive a mobile, invasive BCI to restore his sight.
Jans Nausmann, the first patient to receive a mobile, invasive BCI to restore his sight.

The setbacks to invasive BCIs is that when implanted into the grey matter of the brain, often times the body's immune system will begin to attack the foreign object. This is similar to a body rejecting a transplanted organ. Unlike organ transplants, there is still no solid medical procedure to try and force the body to suppress this reaction without damaging the immune system. In many cases, this attack produces harmful scar-tissue in the brain that must be removed surgically. Until modern medicine and technology overcomes this setback, invasive BCIs will remain costly and limited in their actually implementation.

One solution to the scar tissue problem is to place the BCI outside of the brain's grey matter. Non-invasive BCIs suffer from low resolution due to the interference of bone tissue but these partially-invasive BCIs exhibit only slightly lower performance than the fully invasive BCIs but also have a greatly reduced risk of forming scar tissue.

Additional research is also being done to produce a BCI that can be used to control prosthetic limbs to restore motor function in patients that have lost the use of various limbs:
http://news.health.ufl.edu/news/story.aspx?ID=5103

Entertainment Applications


In addition to searching for ways to use this new and revolutionary technology in the medical field, many in the gaming and entertainment community are looking for ways to integrate the technology into thier games and other applications. The basic aim for gamers is the idea that users would be able to play games wiithout needing a controller or keyboard. They would only need to use their brains and through the brain interface technology to tranfer the thoughts to the controller and finally to the game. There are some early models of such technologies, involving neurosensors to identify and essentially translate the messages from the brain in order to control the character in the game. One could also use thoughts to control the television they watch. The idea is that one could change the channel, raise or lower the volume, ad any other task involving TV using the brain as the remote control! Essentially, the brain could very well be the next controller used worldwide!



Another possible use of the technology would be as a stress reliever. Essentially games have been developed that require a user to maintain a calm and relaxed state of mind in order to reach objectives. For example, in a stress relieving game made by Smart Braingames, in order to reach the optimum speed of a race car, the user must calm him or herself down, basically giving incentive for a person to be calm. This technology has been used to alleviate stress for some people, but it is not a proven way to remove stress completely. This idea is simply being tested at the present time, along with every other concept for the use of BCI.

Although the idea behind this use of BCI is exciting, doctors are actually worried that this could have some negative effects on users. One example of this would be that the device requires a person to slow down their brain waves, which led to some cases of the users having trouble focusing their attention. Another concern would be an increase in the number of Attention Deficit Disorder cases due to the slowed brain waves. Medical experts have said that this technology would be great for those disabled, but to use it for sheer entertainment would require a serious look in to the effect it would have on us after daily use.
The character on the screen moves based on the thoughts of this user.
The character on the screen moves based on the thoughts of this user.

Military Applications


The U.S. Army has just awarded a $4 million contract to begin developing "thought helmets" that would harness silent brain waves for secure communication among troops. The Army's initial goal is to capture those brain waves with incredibly sophisticated software that then translates the waves into audible radio messages for other troops in the field. Initially, the recipients would most likely hear transmissions rendered by a robotic voice via earphones. But scientists eventually hope to deliver a version in which commands are rendered in the speaker's voice and indicate the speaker's distance and direction from the listener.

Terminology


BCI - brain-computer interface, a direct communication between the brain and an external device in order to control that device
Invasive BCI - a BCI directly implanted into the grey matter of a subject's brain via neurosurgery
Non-invasive BCI - a BCI that does not require surgical implantation
Partially-invasive BCI - a BCI implanted into the skull but not into the brain
Neuroprosthetics - implanted devices that are designed to improve or replace a certain function of the central nervous system

Citations/References:
Non-Profit BCI Foundation:
http://www.braincommunication.org/

William Dobelle, Sight restoration BCIs:
http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-some-brain-computer-interfaces-bci.htm

Honda Mobility and Robotics:
http://dreams.honda.com/robotics-mobility/

Time Article: The Army's Totally Serious Mind-Control Project
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1841108,00.html

Non-Invasive Brain-Computer Interface Offers More Control Than Once Thought
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/12/041208105710.htm

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-neuroprosthetics.htm

Graphics:
THE FUTURE OF ENTERTAINMENT BCI:
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